The clown and the crime fighter

“Technically this is his Barnes & Noble.”

It takes a second for the woman’s comment to sink in, but 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 the night of May 30, and we’re 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 posthumously, have gathered to discuss the writer’s work and the case.

The evening starts off a bit rough—one can’t really blame staff for being somewhat unprepared in the face of 400 visitors, multiple local TV news cameras and an HBO film crew.

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.

Oswalt plays along, occasionally dropping Holes’ name to get the crowd pumped, and his ability to lighten the moment is welcome. 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 tense moment comes near the end, when a woman who says her father was murdered by the GSK questions what she sees as inaccuracies in the book. 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 her book, but rather tied up loose ends.

We didn’t change a single word,” Jensen says.

Near the end, Oswalt, who’s been asked repeatedly to imagine what McNamara would have thought after DeAngelo’s arrest, draws a respectful, cautious line.

McNamara, he stresses, put in years of research and writing. He can’t necessarily imagine what she’d feel (though he speculates 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.