“Technically this is his Barnes & Noble.”
It takes a second for the woman’s comment to sink in but, yes, if one could imagine the Golden State Killer as a literary sort, then this Citrus Heights bookstore was likely where he wandered in search of, oh who knows, murder mysteries and true crime thrillers.
It’s Wednesday night and we’re here at the bookstore off of Sunrise Boulevard for the latter—specifically to hear comedian Patton Oswalt, along with Billy Jensen and Paul Haynes, discuss I’ll Be Gone in the Dark. The nonfiction book, written by Oswalt’s late wife Michelle McNamara, is a deep dive into the story of the East Area Rapist, the serial sexual assaulter and murderer McNamara renamed the Golden State Killer. Published nearly two years after the writer’s 2016 death, its February release eerily dovetailed with the April 25 capture of Joseph DeAngelo.
Oswalt, along with Jensen and Haynes, the journalist and researcher respectively who worked with McNamara on her book and finished it posthumousely, have gathered to discuss the writer’s work and the case.
The evening starts off a bit rough—one can’t really blame Barnes & Noble staff for being somewhat unprepared in the face of 400 visitors, multiple local TV news cameras and an HBO film crew. The place is a claustrophobic maze of shelves and towering books, nervous security guards and people jostling for a better view. Before the event starts, some pass time taking selfies (because nothing says “we got the murderer” like a duck-lipped pout), others put their phones to better use, stacking them atop books to record. Later, some of those craning necks will realize it’s smarter to watch through these tiny viewfinders instead of standing, tippy-toed, peering over heads and bookcases. Blessed are those who arrived as early as 11 a.m to snag a sightline-worthy seat.
Once it starts, the trio patiently address theories and answer questions from various attendees, including McNamara fans, GSK survivors, shocked DeAngelo neighbors and scores of “murderinos” a.k.a. My Favorite Murder podcast enthusiasts who cheer, loudly, every time Paul Holes, the hunky, retired Contra Costa County investigator, is mentioned.
Holes is famous for tirelessly pursuing the GSK case, even post-retirement, but here everyone seems to just be #hotforholes, which given the scope of DeAngelo’s alleged crimes, feels somewhat distasteful.
Still, Oswalt plays along, occasionally dropping Holes’ name to get the crowd pumped and, honestly, his ability to lighten the moment, however grim, tense or awkward, is welcome. To wit: responding to a man who wondered why the GSK didn’t target his father, who’d dared to criticize the GSK at a public town hall meeting: “Sorry your dad wasn’t killed.”
One particularly tense moment comes near the end of the hour-long session when a woman who says her father was murdered by the GSK, questions what she sees as inaccuracies in I’ll Be Gone in the Dark.
McNamara, she complained, never contacted her for an interview.
Jensen handles the reproach deftly, asking her to put McNamara’s legacy into perspective.
“You’ve got to remember Michelle died before she got the chance to finish this book,” Jensen says. “It [represents] her first and second drafts.”
Throughout, the three are quick to keep the spotlight on McNamara, pointing out time and time again that they didn’t finish writing McNamara’s book, but rather tied up loose ends.
“We didn’t change a single word,” Jensen says.
Near the end of the session, Oswalt, who’s been asked repeatedly to imagine what McNamara would have thought in the wake of DeAngelo’s arrest, draws a respectful, cautious line.
Michelle McNamara, he stresses, put in years of exhaustive research and writing. He can’t necessarily imagine what she’d feel (though he does speculate she’d likely have booked a stay at a local Airbnb in order to attend every court hearing) and it’s tough, he says, trying to answer questions on her behalf.
“I’m just a clown speaking on behalf of a crime fighter,” he says.