I can date my waning interest in true crime to about halfway through watching Making a Murderer. True crime was never really a passion or anything, but at some point in the middle of MaM*, I found myself just uncomfortably aware that the literal & figurative gory details involved real people and that I was actually enjoying the story. Which – of course I was! It’s entertaining, which is the whole point! And I don’t mean to sound holier-than-thou. I understand the appeal of true crime. I watched The Jinx, raptly; I read and enjoyed The Devil in the White City , a book I credit with making me realize nonfiction isn’t actually all horrible; I find myself trawling Wikipedia on serial killers’ articles more often than I’d like to admit; and of course my greatest hypocrisy: I eat up stories about cults, in any format, like ice cream.
In the years since The Jinx and Serial made the true crime fad explode (at least, in my recollection), it’s started to feel like gossip. Of course you feel for the victims, or the falsely accused, or whoever – but there’s a distance. Crime has a fairly predictable template really: there’s a criminal, there’s a victim, there’s the crime itself. There’s the person accused, the person accusing, and there’s usually some sort of law enforcement involved. There’s punishment. It’s only the details that change: how many years between the crime and the accusation, was the crime a murder or a rape or a robbery, was the person accused actually the criminal, and so forth.
Humans narrativize. I firmly believe it’s in our nature. We take real life and make characters and plot points out of people and events, and when we don’t have our own stories we seek them out. But I must wonder if there’s an essential humanity or an essential empathy that is buckling under the weight of all this narrative. How many weekly podcasts about true crime are there? How many would collapse under the volume of sheer human brutality in their episodes if the narrators couldn’t treat it juuuuuust a little bit like gossip instead of crime?
All of this is to say – and I know it’s taking me quite a long time to actually get to mentioning this book – that I think the true crime pieces that will survive when the bubble bursts are the ones who never forget about the humans behind the story: the criminals, the victims, and the narrator. The ones that, like this book, transcend their salacious details or plot twists and ground themselves in that essential humanity and empathy to reach new heights.
Humanity permeates every word of this book. Michelle McNamara’s honesty and candor about the toll writing it takes on her certainly is a huge factor in that, but she also writes the story itself with enough details and twists to make it engaging but with enough distance to keep it from feeling like a juicy tale. And of course, her tragic death does hang over the book like a specter: another victim of the Golden State Killer, the one who forced her way in his head, to try and figure the whole thing out.
Though you can tell that her research was extensive and exhaustive, she doesn’t bog the book down with unnecessary detail, nor does she develop the kind of cold detachment that appears sometimes in books like this, that cover a long period of time or require facts to keep coming at a pretty fast clip. Her narrative never really turns into a dry recitation, even though in effect the whole book is structured as a listing of individual crimes. It can be a little bit of a disjointed read (the reason for a 4/5 rating) – keeping the timeline straight or remembering the locations proved a bit of a struggle to someone wholly unfamiliar with the case – but not so much so that I felt too lost.
Most importantly, her plot is based not the mechanics of the murder so much as the investigations into the crimes. While she does write up each crime that’s given a chapter, it’s done in clean, unassuming prose, without much suspense. This is to her credit – if she’d done too much more of “then Jane heard a creak and felt her stomach drop… who could it be?!?!?” it would have felt like a Goosebumps book. Instead, she focuses on the finding of evidence and the detectives doing their slow work to find the man responsible. I know I’m overusing the phrase “grounds the book” but it’s well-deserved: of course there are times when you read, wide-eyed, as she describes a creak or footfall or whisper, but more often you gasp when they find a journal entry he left in the grass, or make the connection yourself as the detectives find a piece of evidence you know will be crucial. And of course, there’s always the sense that even though the book is clearly a distillation of a mountain of research, you’re finding this all out with McNamara herself. She plays a part in the story, which brings it back to reality again and again.
I bought this book (new, hardcover, two things I rarely do!) shortly after the GSK was captured, which undoubtedly changed my reading experience, and in general the knowledge that she passed away before finishing has affected the book itself. The conversation with Paul Holes, pasted in, essentially, as a transcript and so effective, might have never been kept intact had she survived to write it up, and yet because we read her voice she maintains more of a presence than one might expect. The Letter to an Old Man at the end is chilling, because she is, in a way, prophesying from the grave. The whole book has a kind of eerie, clairvoyant quality: I already knew several of the endings, and reading this felt triply haunted, by the victims, by Michelle, and by the mugshot flying around the internet two days before I popped in the store to buy this.
I hope Michelle McNamara is somehow aware that she got it right, that she’s left behind a powerful piece of writing; it is at once a testament to her own work, a chronicle of how crime affects its tellers as well as its victims, and an engrossing mystery, one that never loses the humanity that drives us to read these stories in the first place. One might even say this is a masterpiece.
*[spoilers for MaM for anyone who hasn’t seen it]: I think it was right around when they were interviewing his nephew. The footage of them very clearly coercing him into an answer was really sickening, and somehow it clicked that this was a real person (and a kid, and a learning-disabled kid at that!!!!!!), and real police misconduct, not just a TV show, and I had to turn it off for a day. Regardless of how biased the doc turned out to be, that scene – I call it a “scene” as if it was a script! That footage – was a turning point for me.