The newly released novel “Death in Her Hands,” by Ottessa Moshfegh, concerns a woman living just at the point where solitude becomes seclusion. Her imagination captured by a scrap of paper suggesting a recent murder, Moshfegh’s heroine grows to be consumed by this case, allowing it to rewire her brain, restructure her life, and shuffle to the fore buried memories. We’re left unsure that the murder in question happened at all; the disappearance, in the book, becomes that of the sleuth’s own identity.
I thought of “Death in Her Hands” often while watching the new HBO documentary series “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” — a perhaps inapt comparison in some particulars, given that the show describes the methods by which Michelle McNamara came frustratingly close, in her life, to solving the case of what she termed the “Golden State Killer,” a murderer whose three distinct crime sprees she brought together through amateur sleuthing, largely online. McNamara’s book of the same title, investigating the violent predations of this serial rapist and murderer, was left unfinished when she died, in 2016, in an accidental overdose of multiple prescription medications; her pursuit of completing her book, narrated by friends and family and depicted onscreen through text messages, came at a heavy cost.
Or, perhaps, it didn’t. That, maybe, the two things were less related than the obvious correlation of an author dying at the point of highest tension in her wrestling match with the manuscript might suggest is the sad second mystery of “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark,” and the one that generates substantially more interest. Director Liz Garbus recalls her own past work in “There’s Something Wrong with Aunt Diane,” about a woman’s startling sudden snap — McNamara’s own self-erasure lacks an easy answer, though possible contributing factors flicker in and out of view even as her widower (the actor and comedian Patton Oswalt) and family seem stunned. Elsewhere, Garbus’s interview footage of surviving Golden State Killer victims is less effective: though their testimony is compelling, it comes to seem familiar within the genre, and within the show itself. We can know that this unknown man is wicked and depraved through other means. Garbus seems at times to lose her nerve and lean on cliché at times; a woman describing a moment of formative, horrifying abuse is intercut with a teakettle, from which the woman serves herself hot water, boiling and whistling.
Judging stories of real-life horror according to their efficacy within a narrative is, incidentally, what the prevalence of true crime, the metier within which McNamara worked, has done to us all, is now part of the TV critic’s remit more specifically. This — broadly speaking, the generalized popularization of a form of media not generally known for its sensitivity or care thanks in part to an author whose obsessive care seems to have been part of the cocktail that killed her — is an irony that “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” is equipped to address, if only obliquely. (An interview, for instance, with a host of the “My Favorite Murder” podcast, followed, later, by that host eulogizing McNamara by fawningly praising her “content,” seems impossible to take at face value as the words of McNamara’s respected peer.)
If the aspects of the story pertaining to the Golden State Killer feel, here, the stuff of formula — one imagines the ideal delivery system to be McNamara’s book — the story of McNamara herself is told with crisp elegance. It seems, based on everything we see of her collaborators’ and family’s testimony, to keep in the air every bit of the careful curiosity McNamara sought in her work, while stopping short of demanding an answer. What this work demonstrates, as it ruefully examines the life of a talented writer whose quest for perfection appeared to play a role in her end, is that some mysteries resist the solving. McNamara died before she could see justice in a case she advanced hugely, but, for a moment, she seemed to hold death in her hands. That this documentary attempts no such grandeur, seeking to explicate without ever cracking its case, is the mark of its conditional but real success.