In the 1970s and ’80s, a man who would come to be known as the Golden State Killer burglarized, raped and murdered his way through swaths of California yet always evaded capture. And when writer Michelle McNamara became aware of his crimes in the early 2000s, she just couldn’t shake the case.
McNamara’s work to chronicle the grievous misdeeds of the Golden State Killer (a name she coined) became the basis of a Los Angeles magazine article and later, a book. HBO’s I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, a docuseries based on McNamara’s nonfiction work which premiered Sunday, is a story of a woman bitten by what she calls “the murder bug” and her efforts to track down the identity of the man who terrorized California communities for years. The series also tells the story of McNamara’s unexpected death while writing the book and how it affected husband Patton Oswalt (Veep) and their young daughter, Alice.
Spoiler Alert: If the murderer’s moniker rings a bell, it’s likely because — in large part thanks to McNamara’s work — he was identified as former cop Joseph James DeAngelo and arrested in 2018, two years after McNamara’s death.
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The series’ premiere uses McNamara’s writing (narrated by The Office alum Amy Ryan) and extensive archive of recorded interviews, emails, texts and voicemails to create a portrait of a woman who really loved digging into an investigation. We learn how she’d surf the Internet on sleepless nights, intrigued by accounts of how a ski mask-wearing man would break into women’s homes, tie up their partners and then rape the women. In the beginning, that’s where he’d stop; eventually his behavior escalated to murdering the women or couples he encountered.
“Everyone has their cause, and this just feels like what I was born to do,” McNamara says in an old interview. The premiere also features interviews with those involved with with the case, including the now-retired police officers who worked it and some of the victims, as well as with some of the “citizen detectives” McNamara met during her online sleuthing.
Oswalt is there, too, to talk about how he and McNamara started dating and fell in love after they met at one of his stand-up comedy shows. And Los Angeles editor Nancy Miller discusses how she was instantly captivated by McNamara’s storytelling and drive when they first met to discuss a possible article.
By the end of the premiere, McNamara has so impressed a longtime citizen detective (who appears to have had an impressive pipeline to the authorities) that she’s allowed access to an extensive trove of police documentation. And in the final moments of the episode, Miller officially commissions the Los Angeles piece that would eventually lead to McNamara’s book.
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