Documentary adaptations of non-fiction books are a tricky proposition, because it can be difficult to justify why the same material needs to exist in both media. Too often, these films (or series) are merely amplifications of written works, rather than independent entities with their own unique insights and revelations. The prolific director Alex Gibney, for example, has turned them into a cottage industry, with passable book-to-film adaptations on Enron (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room), the Manhattan elite (Park Avenue: Money, Power and the American Dream), Scientology (Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief), and Theranos (The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley). There’s no important new information in any of them, but they’re a decent primer for those who want a more bite-size version of the story.
After the first episode of I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, a six-part series based on the late Michelle McNamara’s book, it’s not clear yet if the show will distinguish itself, but there are promising signs here. McNamara died two years before the book was published, leaving a team of other people — namely, crime writer and fellow “citizen detective” Paul Haynes, investigative reporter Billy Jensen, and her husband, comedian Patton Oswalt — to wrangle the material together. McNamara did not live to see Joseph James DeAngelo, a former police officer, arrested for six counts of first-degree murder on April 2018. But the arrest bore out her belief that the serial rapist and murderer she dubbed the “Golden State Killer” was still alive and that his case could be solved. At a minimum, her obsession had raised his profile enough to warm up a cold case.
The promise of Liz Garbus’s series lies in the incompleteness of McNamara’s story as much as it does the particulars of the Golden State Killer file. It’s a memoir as much as it is a mystery, detailing McNamara’s life and work alongside the facts of the monster known here as the East Area Rapist/Original Night Stalker (or EAR/ONS for short). It’s also about a culture of message-board Sherlocks who trade information and work on finding clues and connections that may have eluded the official investigation. We see plenty of examples every day where such crowdsourcing efforts don’t pay off — like people pulling the wrong social-media page or misidentifying perpetrators on viral videos — but McNamara held herself to the standards of a journalist, and seemed to have a gift for separating signal from noise.
Key to McNamara’s method, as “Murder Habit” suggests, was not doing all the work on her laptop. By going to the actual spaces where these crimes took place, she could get a firsthand perspective on how EAR/ONS and his victims moved through them and perhaps better imagine the scene as it unfolded. She also relied on new interviews with victims and longstanding relationships with the citizen sleuths and the retired and active detectives who were either still poking around the case or could give her whatever information they had. In other words, she approached the work as a journalist, not a dilettante, and wasn’t inclined to speculate on a case without holding herself to investigative rigor.
Trying to find the images to match McNamara’s prose is a primary challenge for I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, and Garbus opens the series with actual words being typed out on a screen, with Amy Ryan narrating. McNamara writes about the “narcotic pull” of an unsolved crime, and casts herself almost like the hero in a piece of vintage detective fiction: “I had a murder habit and it was bad. I would feed it for the rest of my life.” While she was alive, her murder habit was manifested in True Crime Diary, a blog with entries that also sound like vintage detective fiction, like “The Sick Degrees of Michael Devlin” and “White Picket Murder.” But this first episode is about the lead-up to McNamara’s most consequential piece, a Los Angeles magazine story from 2013 called “In the Footsteps of a Killer.”
One important aspect of the magazine piece was simply to call attention to a serial rapist and murderer who terrorized California for a decade, but didn’t have a reputation to match his rap sheet. Everyone knew about the Zodiac Killer, but few were paying much attention to a man who had committed at least 50 rapes and ten murders, and was still at large. McNamara’s belief in harvesting information online also spawned multiple sidebars around the main article, inviting readers to “Help Catch the Killer” by poring over evidence and myths associated with the case. The editors of the magazine dubbed it “an experiment not just in inventive storytelling but in the power of social media.” For anyone who’s ever binged on Unsolved Mysteries or other syndicated true crime shows, it has a familiar allure.
“Murder Habit” starts with the earliest EAR/ONS crimes, which were initially limited to rape before he graduated to murder. Starting in the Sacramento suburbs, he developed an identifiable pattern of behavior: A meticulous casing of victim’s home, to get a sense of their routines and the times when they’d be alone in the house; the use of a ski mask, gloves, and a flashlight to obscure his identity, as well as talking through clenched teeth; and the meticulous ligatures, usually shoelaces, that would bind his victims’ wrists. EAR/ONS did not get much national attention in the mid-to-late ’70s, but his exploits were certainly known to the citizens of Sacramento, especially once the media picked up on the story, which the authorities could no longer keep under wraps. Three weeks after the eighth victim, a headline read “Fear Grips Serene Neighborhoods,” and a report on one community meeting about the East Area Rapist showed 500 citizens in attendance.
As the show starts laying out the details in these early cases — including the one that gave the book its title — it also digs into McNamara’s personality and private life. She and Oswalt seemed to have complementary qualities, not merely in the culture they enjoyed together (they watched the crazy Italian science-fiction film The 10th Victim on their first date, and both loved Creature from the Black Lagoon), but also in the contrast between Oswalt’s celebrity and her more self-effacing personality. He did stand-up and appeared in movies and TV shows. She went to premieres in simple black dresses and observed. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is about a life in the shadows.
• The notion of physical spaces speaking to investigators isn’t limited to McNamara. Larry Crompton, the retired Contra Costa lieutenant who wrote the book Sudden Terror about EAR/ONS, also talks about the feeling he has walking into a victims’ house and having a more visceral sense of the terror in the room.
The popular true-crime podcast My Favorite Murder gets a mention in the episode, so it’s worth linking to the episode where hosts Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark talk to Oswalt, Haynes, and Jensen about McNamara’s book and the process of completing it. You can find it here.
• It would be too big a side issue to deal with the problems of crowdsourcing, especially over matters this consequential. But it seems like the key for McNamara was to know how to separate signal from noise, which would not have been easy to do when scrolling through 146,000 replies on an A&E message board.
• That said, no one person could be expected to connect so many dots, at least not efficiently. There’s a great anecdote here about McNamara getting thumb drive of 49 case files, with over 4,000 pages of material total, and burning through all of it in a hotel room for 24 hours straight while subsisting on gummy bears. But there will always be angles that cannot be seen into a case this expansive, and sharing information and theories seems like a sensible approach.
• Garbus elegantly associates EAR/ONS’ tendency to move through drainage ditches and cement-lined canals with McNamara and Oswalt’s love of The Creature From the Black Lagoon. The celebrated sequence Garbus keeps coming back to, where Julia Adams dives into the waters where the monster lurks, is too evocative a metaphor to pass up.