The current New York Times bestseller, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, has a hell of a backstory in addition to its chilling, breathtaking subject matter. The book is about a crazed murderer/rapist who attacked women at home alone, women with children in the house, and married couples. He apparently indulged in bizarre rituals while committing his crimes, including brewing himself tea during his attacks, sometimes placing cup and saucer on his tied up victim’s prone body. He allegedly wreaked his terror east of the San Francisco Bay for at least a couple of decades, starting some time in the 1970s.
It’s the kind of case that draws obsessives to study it, to try to solve it, and, really, to creep the rest of us out because, jeez, what kind of a person wants to devote his or her life to mulling such sustained ghastliness?
Michelle McNamara, for one. She became essentially hypnotized by the tale about a dozen years ago, writing about it in her blog, True Crime Diary. Her independent digging kept the investigation alive even as police officials fretted that the trail was growing cold. The last suspected victim was attacked some 32 years ago. While the killer was going about his business, his crimes were attributed to a couple of different ghouls known as the East Area Rapist and the Original Night Stalker. McNamara tied the crimes together and dubbed the single perpetrator the Golden State Killer.
McNamara was the wife of comedian Patton Oswalt. She suffered from depression (no wonder) and was taking psychiatric medications when, two years ago last week, she died in the middle of the night, victim of an undiagnosed heart ailment perhaps turned fatal by the drugs she was taking. She’d still been working on a book about the Golden State Killer. It remained unfinished at the time of her death.
Thanks to her widower’s celebrity, another true crime writer finished the thing and it was released this past winter. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark continues its run on the NYT hardcover nonfiction bestseller list. And yesterday, California officials announced an arrest in the case. DNA and other types of evidence tied a former small-town cop to several of the killings.
The man is 72 years old. His mug shot does not resemble that of a terrifying madman. Rather, it’s of a sad-looking, disheveled old coot. One, though, who in his younger days attacked his victims, it is alleged, often at a rate of two per month. His crimes, according to reports, not only changed how inland Californians lived their lives, but how police and hospital personnel dealt with rape victims.
Patton Oswalt, for his part, said on Twitter, “Goodnight, Michelle. You did good. You aimed a light and helped the hunters catch a monster.”
Hollywood screenwriters can only wish they could come up with stories as wild as this.