Now, as opposed to my previous book review, this true crime book was extraordinary and one of the best books of any genre and non-fiction or fiction that I’ve read in a long, long time. What helps to elevate it is how beautiful the writing is. As you’ll see in my review, there are many instances where I wanted to pull-quote the book. But also, it’s just downright creepy and scary. The podcast based on the story of the Golden State Killer, which has more about the actual killer than this book could, is great, too, if you haven’t heard that.
Here’s my review below. Spoilers abound.
Michelle McNamara’s posthumous book, part-memoir and part-true crime caper, is a riveting, seamless feat of storytelling. It works. That is, McNamara’s chase for self-discovery and self-examination is as interesting and pivotal, in some ways, as her chase for the elusive Golden State Killer.
I essentially read this book in one sitting on a Saturday, and that’s because of the beautifully fluid writing and the sense that, I, as a wannabe true crime sleuth and obsessive as well, enjoyed living vicariously through McNamara, as she lived it and experienced it.
What makes McNamara’s writing particularly come alive for me and so readable is how honest she is. The best writing is the most honest writing. She admits that she’s obsessed. She admits the faults with being an amateur sleuth. She admits how being obsessive and being an amateur sleuth interfered with her relationship with Patton Oswalt. To be honest, she doesn’t come across particularly well in that regard. But I appreciate the honesty.
Here’s a snippet of some of the beautiful writing in the book:
“What is the lasting damage when you believe the warm spot you were just sleeping in will be your grave?”
“Writing this now, I’m struck by two incompatible truths that pain me. No one would have taken more joy from this book than my mother. And I probably wouldn’t have felt the freedom to write it until she was gone.”
“Inside everyone lurks a Sherlock Holmes that believes that given the right amount of clues they could solve a mystery.”
But also, the scenes of the Golden State Killer’s escapades throughout Southern California are absolutely terrifying and make your skin crawl, but importantly, without feeling voyeuristic or exploitative. In other words, there is absolutely no way you could read this book and think the Golden State Killer is “cool” or worth idolizing in any sense of that word, as has come to happen with other notorious serial killers, like Zodiac and Ted Bundy.
Another fascinating element of this book is the cold case element of it, and contrary to the last cold case book I read, I enjoyed the “cast of characters,” aka, the detectives and criminologists who worked the case. The ripple effects of a serial killer’s crimes from the literal victims, to the victims’ families, to the cops working the case, to the next generation of cops, and then to the amateur sleuths trying to uncover it; it’s massive.
One scene from one of the criminologists in the book really hammered home just how peculiar the relationship is to the elusive killer in a cold case. When dealing with a cold case, in many ways, you’re detached from the case. The crimes are just words on old, yellowed paper, and the victims are the loosely scrawled quotations from a beat cop 40 years ago. So, when a present-day criminologist comes into contact with a past-victim, the contrast is as such, “He’d studied her rapist’s sperm cells in a microscope, but he’d never looked her in the eye or shaken her hand.”
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention a law that came about in relation to the Golden State Killer in California: state law mandates DNA collection from arrestees. Anyone arrested on suspicion of a felony, without a warrant or any finding by a judge that there was sufficient cause for arrest, has their DNA collected. That DNA is stored indefinitely and allows DNA profiles to be searched continuously by local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
That law was heavily advocated for by one of the victims’ family members, and voters approved it in 2004 with the hope that collecting all that DNA would eventually net the Golden State Killer. The state Supreme Court has also upheld the law, despite privacy concerns.
To be clear, this law did not help catch the Golden State Killer, but it will have the adverse affect of harming a great many people. It’s clearly unconstitutional. We can have empathy for the victims without implementing knee-jerk laws that have unintended, negative consequences.
Anyhow, the hardest thing about this book is that obviously it’s unfinished. The last section of it is written by her co-sleuths and researchers. I would have loved to read McNamara’s take on the capture of the Golden State Killer and digging into his life.