I had actually never heard of this book by Michelle McNamara until Book Riot alerted me to a similar book that was listed as a kind of continuation of McNamara’s book. Since I always like to start at the beginning of a series (even if it isn’t really a series), I requested this audiobook from my library.
I had only vaguely heard of the Golden State Killer (a term McNamara coined) before listening to this audiobook. I remember hearing that he had finally been arrested decades after terrorizing hundreds of people and that, in recent years, he had started calling his victims and terrorizing them over the phone. Even all these years later, they still recognized his voice.
Hearing about the awful things he did is enough to give anyone nightmares. As a woman who lives alone, I’m used to feeling vulnerable, but the fact that he tended to attack couples and families makes him even more terrifying.
I had never heard of McNamara before this and it wasn’t until I started listening to the audiobook that I realized she was Patton Oswalt’s late wife. I had heard a few years ago that his wife had died, but hadn’t known who she was or how she had died (accidental overdose of prescription drugs made worse by an undiagnosed heart condition). I had no idea what she did for a living and I never read her blog. I’ve never been a true crime enthusiast (or even a crime enthusiast. For the most part, I’d rather live in the world of Jane Austen or Downton Abbey where the worst thing that can happen is that you elope with some penniless rake, forever ruining your prospects of a good marriage.)
So this book was definitely outside my normal reading sphere and I was surprised to learn that McNamara was from my hometown of Oak Park, IL and that she became obsessed with unsolved murders when she was a teenager and a girl was pulled into an alleyway by someone who raped and stabbed her before slitting her throat less than half a mile from where McNamara was living. I walk around that area all the time with my dog and had never heard of this happening. For the most part, Oak Park is a very safe neighborhood and it’s easy for us to believe that horrors like that don’t happen here.
McNamara focuses on the details, specifically the details each case had in common: the fact that the killer raped his victims before killing them; that he tended to take personal items that had sentimental value, but not a lot of cash value; that the houses where he attacked had just been sold, or a nearby house had recently been sold or gone up for sale; that he stalked his victims for weeks, even months before attacking, leaving footprints around their houses as he got to know their names, their habits, their schedules, etc.
Apparently he started as a petty thief who burgled people’s homes when they were out, again, taking personal items of little value while leaving other items, such as underwear, strewn about the house.
He then graduated to rape, raping more than 15 women and earning the name East Area Rapist before “disappearing.” Then the Golden State Killer started his killing spree and it was years before anyone realized the two attackers were the same.
McNamara died before finding out who the killer was, but knowing that he was a cop while listening to the audiobook definitely answered a lot of questions McNamara was asking, like how he knew to park just outside of the local police department’s jurisdiction, and how he avoided leaving any evidence that would condemn him.
There were a number of close calls when police almost caught him, but he managed to outrun them or, in one case, use his gun to shoot his way out of the situation. Also, he definitely knew his way around a gun, which is another indication of police training.
Towards the end of the book, McNamara talks about the evolution of technology and what was already known about the Golden State Killer’s DNA. She named other killers who had remained hidden for decades, only to be taken down by DNA evidence – as she put it, it wasn’t the police that caught up to the killers, it was technology. McNamara predicted the same thing would happen to the Golden State Killer and she was right. She even talked about the use of a public DNA database, such as 23andMe or ancestry.com, which is, in fact, what ultimately got him.
While McNamara is a great writer and I really enjoyed the first half of the book, the second half was patched together by her friends after her death and they just didn’t do a very good job. The second half of the book is riddled with editor’s notes and changes in the narrative style that take the reader out of the story. It made me appreciate My Life in France that much more because Child’s nephew had to finish his aunt’s memoir without her, but the book never loses its flow. Instead, he mentions it in an author’s note at the beginning, talks a little about his struggles in finishing his aunt’s story without her, and then he tells that story without interruption. McNamara’s friends would have done well to take a page out of that book (figuratively speaking) when finishing McNamara’s book.
What did you read/listen to this week? Anything else you couldn’t take to bed with you if you wanted to avoid nightmares?