This true-crime narrative ought, by rights, to be broken backed, in two tragic ways. One is that the serial attacker it concerns, a sneaking California rapist who graduated to multiple murder, was never caught. The other is that its author died aged 46 before the book could be completed. That it is nevertheless so gripping and satisfying is thanks to its sensitive editors and compilers, but mainly due to the remarkable skills of Michelle McNamara herself.
The subtitle is ‘One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer’. McNamara coined the catchy nickname for the shadowy figure that slaughtered five couples and two women between 1978 and 1986. The investigators knew him as EAR-ONS, after DNA connected the ‘East Area Rapist’ of Sacramento with the ‘Original Night Stalker’, so-called because his attacks began before those of the infamous Richard Ramirez, active 1984–85.
The EAR-ONS rapes and murders were not linked to begin with, because the latter took place further south, in Santa Barbara, Ventura and Orange County. After the killing of Janelle Cruz, they abruptly stopped; conventional wisdom maintains that violent serial killers only give up for two reasons: incarceration, whether in a mental hospital or prison, or death. But so much about EAR-ONS resists conventional explanation. He combined explosive rage and impulsiveness with lengthy planning and surveillance. He liked to steal victims’ clock radios.
The sheer scale of offending gives the impression of someone who was able to attack almost at will, fleeing on foot or on stolen bicycles, even on one occasion outpacing a pursuer in a car. Identifying details are frustratingly vague. He usually wore a ski-mask. Witnesses’ and survivors’ assessments of his build, hair colour or age vary widely; the only things agreed on are his height, around 5ft 10, and his penis size — unusually small. Similarly diverse are interpretations of his behaviour: breaking off an attack for a bout of heavy breathing could be asthma, ungovernable excitement or theatrical sadism.
McNamara explains that an unsolved murder of a young woman in Chicago, close to where she lived as a child, fed an obsession with crime and killers that led ultimately to her widely admired blog, TrueCrimeDiary.com. It’s hard to characterise her role in all this, exactly: informal investigator, data-miner, an information-cruncher who eventually became a virtual colleague to the various investigators on this cold, cold case. McNamara visited crime scenes, rifled phone directories and high-school yearbooks, cross-referencing, intuiting and swapping tips with other amateur sleuths.
His DNA never matches any database, so the geographic trail seems the best one to follow: ‘There are only so many white men born between let’s say 1943 and 1959 who lived or worked in Sacramento, Santa Barbara County, and Orange County between 1976 and 1986.’ Enter the investigator McNamara calls ‘The Kid’, who owns the 1977 Sacramento Suburban Directory and has ‘the 1983 Orange County telephone directory digitised on his hard drive’. (The Kid is Paul Haynes, who helped complete the book.) Enthusiasts like he and McNamara are willing to spend thousands of hours meticulously referencing such data. Dealing with successive investigators, she is fascinated by their impassivity:
I’m a face-maker. I married a comedian [Patton Oswalt]. Many of my friends are in show- business. I’m constantly surrounded by big expressions, which is why I immediately noticed the lack of them in detectives.
There’s none of the prurient gloating over ghastliness that mars much crime writing; rather, McNamara spotlights the appalling detail while leaving much to the imagination. A coda by Haynes and the investigative journalist Billy Jensen, who together tied up the loose ends of McNamara’s manuscript, almost functions as a review. ‘She didn’t flinch from evoking key elements of the horror and yet avoided lurid overindulgence in grisly details, as well as side-stepping self-righteous justice crusading or victim hagiography.’
The killer’s evasion of justice is of huge significance in the real world, but the lack of closure doesn’t harm the book. In her introduction, Gillian Flynn, the author of Gone Girl, puts it succinctly: ‘I want him captured; I don’t care who he is.’ The reasoning behind the acts of what Patton Oswalt calls ‘a wounded, destructive insect’ can only be banal; this chilling, empathetic account is anything but.