Michelle MacNamara, the woman who speared the search that lead to The Golden State Killer, and who later wrote I’ll Be Gone in the Dark about it. (Photo: HBO)
Michelle MacNamara, the woman who speared the search that lead to The Golden State Killer, and who later wrote I’ll Be Gone in the Dark about it. (Photo: HBO)

Pop CultureJune 29, 2020

Review: The tenderness and brutality of true crime doco I’ll Be Gone in the Dark

Michelle MacNamara, the woman who speared the search that lead to The Golden State Killer, and who later wrote I’ll Be Gone in the Dark about it. (Photo: HBO)
Michelle MacNamara, the woman who speared the search that lead to The Golden State Killer, and who later wrote I’ll Be Gone in the Dark about it. (Photo: HBO)

The most famous solved cold case of the 21st century finds its way to the small screen in I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, but it’s as much an ode to the closer as it is a depiction of the criminal, writes Jean Sergent.

In the fervour of the true-crime trend, people who don’t get it often ask why – why are people so into murder? Rather than being a load of morbid proto-murderers, the population of crime junkies and murderinos is much more likely to be people like me: women, drawn by anxiety and fascination, to learn as much as possible about our worst fears.

Spoilers are about to be spilled, so if you’re completely unfamiliar with the Golden State Killer Case – the largest Cold Case solve of 21st century – then proceed with caution. Or just go straight to the docu-series, then come back and read this.

Michelle McNamara was one of this ilk. Her 2018 genre-defining true crime book I’ll Be Gone In The Dark traced her own journey as a true crime fanatic and civilian sleuth, alongside the horrendous decade of violent crime perpetrated by an unknown subject she dubbed ‘the Golden State Killer’. 

HBO’s new documentary series I’ll Be Gone In The Dark is a companion piece to the book – but you don’t need to have read the book to be moved, enthralled, and horrified by its contents. Although, I do recommend the book, because it is fascinating, nuanced, and an absolute ripper read. It is a book that combines brutal case history, sensitive detective work, and heart wrenching biography. 

It is rare to see a love story play out in the middle of a crime doco, but just like the book, I’ll Be Gone In The Dark defies the expectations of the genre. In exploring Michelle McNamara’s dogged pursuit of the Golden State Killer, a complex story of love, loss, family, and connection is unravelled. 

A photo of Michelle MacNamara and her family. in I’ll Be Gone in the Dark. (Photo: HBO)

Joseph James D’Angelo is a serial killer awaiting trial for an horrific string of burglaries, rapes, and murders in California in the 1970s and 1980s. Variously known by press and police as the Visalia Ransacker, the East Area Rapist, and the Original Night Stalker, D’Angelo’s distinct crime sprees were not initially linked together. He changed his modus operandi and his location enough times that over the decades there wasn’t necessarily the evidence, or the communication between law enforcement jurisdictions, to figure out that all these people were the same guy.

That’s where Michelle McNamara comes into it. She was a true crime blogger and citizen detective who became obsessed with this unsolved case. Obsessed is not a word I use lightly – throughout the course of the documentary series, Michelle describes herself this way. She acknowledges that what drives her efforts is obsession – obsession to solve the problem, obsession to see justice served, obsession to trap the killer. McNamara’s efforts and dogged pursuit led to more discovery and cooperation between police forces than there had been before. Through new DNA technologies, and the efforts of genetic genealogist Barbara Rae-Venter, D’Angelo was arrested, aged 72, on April 24th 2018.

McNamara did not live to see this arrest. She died in her sleep in April 2016.

A re-enactment of the East Area Rapist killer standing in the forest. (Photo: HBO)

The cast of I’ll Be Gone In The Dark rolls out and grows as the episodes go on. Starting small and domestic, the story is about Michelle – who she was, how she got interested in true crime, what her family was like. Her husband and her siblings speak about their lives and relationships, and archival footage of McNamara being interviewed plays. 

As the story progresses, the cast expands to include detectives, journalists, and most importantly survivors of the Golden State Killer. Survivors like Kris, who was a teenager when the East Area Rapist attacked her in her home. The very fact of her aliveness is astonishing – a few years later her attacker began murdering his victims. When she meets other survivors later in the documentary, they all identify themselves by which number they were in D’Angelo’s sting of attacks. Kris was number 10.

Paul Holes was a cold case investigator for the Contra Costa County district attorney. He started looking at East Area Rapist files in 2001. He connected with Michelle McNamara, and with Barbara Rae–Venter, and utilised their skills and his place in law enforcement to get closer to tracking down the identity of the Golden State Killer than anyone else had been able to. 

The genetic genealogy aspect of the story is gripping, fascinating, and a little disturbing. Watching the unfolding of the family tree based on crime scene DNA evidence is exciting, and also overwhelming. It took 44 years between the first recorded case of the Visalia Ransacker and the eventual arrest of D’Angelo, but those final forensic attempts to figure out who he was are agonising.

There are no holds barred in this docu-series. The agony of the search, the danger in Michelle’s life, the horrors of violence and the deep trenches of grief are all on full display. It is one of the most tender, gripping, intoxicating true crime outings of the current era. Disturbing and upsetting, it is also life–affirming and inspiring.

This is a series anchored not by the killer, but by the seekers. When D’Angelo is apprehended, there is no fascination for this man, no Ted Bundy-esque charisma – just out and out disgust. The real subject is Michelle McNamara, the woman hunting him from her makeshift home office, making sure he wouldn’t be gone in the dark.

You can watch all episodes of I’ll Be Gone in the Dark on Neon.

Keep going!