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Welcome to Culture Crash, where we examine American culture.  What’s new and old in books, film, and entertainment.

Since Truman Capote published his 1966 masterpiece In Cold Blood, America has been fascinated with true crime. Our current version may occasionally take different form: TV shows like The People vs. OJ or docu-series like Making a Murderer have obsessed us in recent years and the Serial podcast took true crime into the digital age… but the idea is the same: to document how crimes have happened, and occasionally, to launch impromptu investigations.

Sometimes, true crime has found rousing success beyond just sales numbers and cultural imprint: The Thin Blue Line, a documentary by Errol Morris was so persuasive that Randall Dale Adams, its subject, was released from prison. Serial shed enough reasonable doubt that the podcast’s focus, Adnan Sayed, is set to receive a new trial. The list goes on…

Most recently has come Michelle McNamara’s I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One woman’s obsessive search for the Golden State Killer, a true-crime book that was published posthumously after McNamara died suddenly while writing it. I’ll be Gone in the Dark tells of the grisly crime spree that terrorized California in the 1970s and 80s by a man she dubbed The Golden State Killer, but who had previously been called the East Area Rapist and the Original Night Stalker.

The book was published in February and immediately shot to the top of The New York Times Best Seller list for nonfiction. Last month, HBO announced plans to make it into a documentary series.

But it’s true accomplishment is this: Just 8 weeks after its publication, police arrested the man they believe to be the Golden State Killer. In their announcement of the charges, the police insisted McNamara’s book did not help their investigation… a claim that seems to be tenuous at best if for no reason than the timing. The case had been cold for decades, the investigation began over 40 years ago and suddenly, after receiving attention stemming from a best-selling book, a suspect is apprehended.

Regardless, the glory of catching a suspect isn’t really what McNamara fantasizes about in the book. She wrote emphatically that she wanted the Golden State Killer apprehended for the victims.

True crime, as a genre, can get a bad rep- that it delights in others suffering. But at its true heart, if it is approached with the appropriate reverence, it can help inform people how to protect themselves, inform future investigators what techniques have worked in the past, and maybe just maybe, help bring along some well-deserved justice.
Michelle McNamara’s book, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, is available now.

I’m Evan Rook.