Obsessive true crime hunt makes for a gripping read

Elspeth McLean reviews Michelle McNamara's I'll be Gone in the Dark: One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer, published by Faber & Faber, and Julia Heaberlin's Paper Ghosts, published Penguin Random House.

Weeks after Michelle McNamara's posthumously-published book appeared, outlining her ''obsessive search'' for the man she dubbed the Golden State Killer, a man was arrested in relation to the crimes.

The arrested man, former police officer Joseph DeAngelo (72) is not identified in McNamara's bestseller. Police have been quick to dismiss any suggestion that McNamara's interest in the case - she had been writing about it in her blog True Crime Diary - had anything to do with the arrest, but she did much to keep the case in the limelight.

I'll Be Gone in the Dark does not solve the mystery of more than 50 rapes and at least 10 murders which occurred in California in the decade from the mid 1970s.

What it does show is McNamara's meticulous research and her ability to grab the reader, even when we know she will not find the answer.

McNamara died unexpectedly in her sleep at the age of 46, two years ago, before she had a chance to complete this book. Loose ends in her enormous amount of work on the case, earlier referred to as the ''East Area Rapist'' and the ''Original Night Stalker'', were drawn together after her death.

There is no doubt the obsession with the case took its toll on McNamara. As she put it: ''There's a scream permanently lodged in my throat now.''

One night when her husband, trying not to disturb her, tiptoed into their bedroom, she leapt out of bed and tried to hit him with her night lamp. She missed.

In the morning she saw the overturned lamp and winced at what she had done, but soon found she was feeling around the bed covers for her laptop so she could resume her search through police reports related to the case.

Leads large and small were investigated by McNamara - once she spent an afternoon tracking down every detail she could about a member of a particular high school water polo team because in the yearbook photo he seemed lean with big calves, a possible physical attribute of the killer.

Readers are able to share the highs and the lows of the chase, all while in awe of McNamara's doggedness.

The book ends with a message for the killer: ''Letter to an Old Man''. The writing is sharp, taut and a fitting finale. It is sad we will not see McNamara's writing again.

Julia Heaberlin's novel Paper Ghosts also deals with possible serial murders.

A young woman is convinced Carl Feldman, once a famous photographer, is responsible for the death of her sister and other young women. He has been tried and acquitted for one murder.

Posing as his daughter, she gets him out of the rest-home for dementia sufferers where he is living and takes him on a road trip to visit places she believes are linked to his past crimes. The hope is that she will finally discover what happened to her sister.

It is full of detail and the road trip is vividly described. I could picture the polluted Houston which ''is welcoming us like a funeral director with bad breath'', for instance.

Heaberlin does a good job of keeping us guessing about both of the main characters and wraps up the story satisfactorily, but I found I did not warm to either of them enough to care what happened.

- Elspeth McLean is an ODT columnist and former health reporter.

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