Patton Oswalt has written two well-received books on personal and pop culture topics, “Silver Screen Fiend: Learning About Life from an Addiction to Film” and “Zombie Spaceship Wasteland,” and has gone on reading tours to promote them.
But the standup comic and actor has never done anything like his current tour that comes to Brookline’s Coolidge Corner Theatre on Thursday, March 1. He will be speaking about “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer,” an investigative true-crime book written by his late wife, Michelle McNamara. Her book is about the pursuit of an illusive rapist-turned-murderer whose crimes date back to 1976.
Michelle McNamara was an obsessive. She was also a damn good writer. That combustive mix has produced I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer (Harper, 328 pp., ★★★ out of four), a dark page-turner about a serial rapist and killer with a tragic twist.
The Golden State Killer’s last victim was, in ways, the author herself. McNamara, who was married to comedian and actor Patton Oswalt, died at age 46 in 2016 as she was writing this book, felled by an undetected arterial blockage exacerbated by medications that helped her battle a range of issues including insomnia.
You wouldn’t sleep either if you lived in the haunted world vividly described in Dark.
Between the mid-1970s and ’80s, a man snuck into homes across California and committed upwards of 50 rapes and 10 murders (the murder victims were both women and men). Dubbed by local law enforcement the East Area Rapist — because many of his crimes happened in eastern Sacramento — he was never caught.
McNamara, a TV writer (and dedicated amateur criminologist who started the website True Crime Diaries), spent years tracking the killer, whom she dubbed the Golden State Killer, or GSK.
“I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” — the title comes from a phrase the rapist told his victims — was completed by McNamara’s lead researcher, Paul Haynes, and her friend, investigative journalist Billy Jensen. Popular crime novelist Gillian Flynn penned the introduction; Oswalt wrote the afterward.
At the Coolidge, Oswalt, 49, will share the stage with NPR and WBUR’s Here & Now host Robin Young for a “conversation” format. How that might unfold, Oswalt does not know.
“I’m trying not to anticipate anything,” Oswalt says, by phone late last week from his Los Angeles home. “I’m just showing up and talking to Robin and we’ll see. I’ve done two other book tours before so I just tend to keep my mind clear, show up and see where it goes.”
This, though, is a different animal. McNamara wrote it; Oswalt’s promoting it.
On his Facebook page, Oswalt writes about this eight-city tour thus: “I’m going to speak glibly and clearly and INADEQUATELY about this dark, brilliant gem of a book. Because that’s who she was as a person — a dark, brilliant gem, and she let every facet of her surface experience the world and, ultimately, this black hole of a crime.”
Despite her dogged sleuthing, McNamara did not identify the killer. Her two collaborators offer a solemn promise: “We will not stop until we get his name.”
In his afterword, Oswalt — who has agreed to undertake publicity duties for Dark — hints that the next generation of GSK sleuths may be close to home.
He describes the couple’s now 8-year-old daughter, Alice, opening a Christmas present that contained a digital camera. She was pleased with the gift, but something nagged.
“Later that morning, she asked, out of the blue, ‘Daddy, why do you and Santa Claus have the same handwriting?’
“Michelle Eileen McNamara is gone. But she left behind a little detective. And a mystery.”