At this moment in our collective obsession with true crime, we have a pretty good idea of what compels audiences to look into the darkest parts of human nature. Some people like to feel as though they’re contributing to a real-life whodunit. Some people want to feel the victory of seeing the bad guys punished. And some people, frankly, might just enjoy the morbidity.
Less certain, however, is what compels a key character of every true-crime tale: the investigator. What motivates someone who can’t just turn off the podcast or change the channel? What drives someone to make their entire career about investigating children’s deaths, women’s rapes or the crimes of people who are severely mentally ill? Paul Holes, a former cold case investigator for Contra Costa County in California, tries to explain in his memoir, Unmasked: My Life Solving America’s Cold Cases.
Holes is best known for devoting years of his life to catching the serial killer and rapist known as the Golden State Killer, but he hadn’t planned on writing a memoir about that experience. ‘My initial intention was to write a book like [an] encyclopedia of the Golden State Killer investigation,’ he explains by phone. But his agent, as well as his co-author, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Robin Gaby Fisher, saw potential in adding more of Holes’ life story to the book. When Fisher interviewed Holes about his experiences, she found the other cases he’d worked on—such as Laci Peterson’s murder and Jaycee Dugard’s kidnapping—just as impactful.
Most importantly, though, Fisher picked up on “this undercurrent that I have—that most people in this field have—in terms of the trauma of having to work these cases,” Holes explains. “So she was trying to draw that out of me. And then when we finally got a publisher involved, the publisher said, ‘We need more Paul.'”
But providing “more Paul”—especially opening up about his traumatic experiences hunting rapists and murderers for 27 years—didn’t come easily to Holes. He had spent decades compartmentalizing painful memories about the worst things humans are capable of and, somewhat understandably, developed a mistrust of people.
However, Holes now realizes that he may not have been as good at compartmentalizing as he originally thought. His obsessive nature made him a dogged investigator of cold cases, but he wouldn’t have won any awards for being an attentive husband or present parent, both because of the urgent demands of his work and because of how its lingering effects spilled over into his personal life. In this regard, Unmasked depicts an aspect of working in law enforcement that surpasses the reductive binaries that have calcified around discussions of police in recent years. Addressing mental health issues in law enforcement is a murky area and is often handled within the profession with machismo and gallows humor. Because of this, Holes didn’t exactly leap at the chance to address his own mental health for most of his career.
And yet he became an author who writes on the very first page of his memoir, “I’ve looked at a woman, and rather than seeing the beauty of the female body, I dissected it, layer by layer, as if she were on the autopsy table. I have visualized dead women during intimate moments and I shut down.” Readers will know straight away the unsettling mental glue traps that lie ahead in Unmasked.
“Law enforcement has one of the highest divorce rates, and you can see why.”
But Holes’ candor about his work, and his eventual diagnosis of and treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, provide helpful context for some of the personal casualties of his former profession. “Law enforcement has one of the highest divorce rates, and you can see why,” Holes says. “A lot of it is just the cynicism that develops in officers as they interact with the public in usually bad situations. . . . They bring that home. You know, I brought that home. And that does impact relationships.”
Fisher interviewed Holes’ ex-wife and his current wife to incorporate their perspectives into Unmasked as well, and a legal review was conducted about cases covered in the memoir. “But nothing in the book was passed by anybody for preapproval,” Holes says. “What I put in there, the intention was to be as authentic as possible.”
In addition to Holes’ mental and emotional evolution, the memoir’s other throughline is tracking down the Golden State Killer—at first known as the East Area Rapist and the Original Nightstalker, until those two criminals were discovered to be the same person. Holes sought the Golden State Killer for 24 years with many twists, turns and false starts along the way. Law enforcement agencies from several California counties eventually tied the crimes to a former police officer named Joseph DeAngelo, thanks to the work of Holes and the late crime journalist Michelle McNamara (whose posthumous book I’ll Be Gone in the Dark details her experience trying to solve the Golden State Killer case). When DeAngelo was finally caught in 2018, he turned out to be living a fairly mundane life in a suburban neighborhood.
“There are real people whose lives have been lost, whose families have been impacted. And the professionals that are working these cases are also impacted.”
The details of Holes’ investigative work will fascinate any “Dateline” viewer or “Serial” listener; the book is practically a love letter to forensic DNA technology. But it’s the psychological component of Unmasked that is most compelling. Holes writes both chillingly and movingly about how tracking the Golden State Killer for so many years forced him to become very familiar with the killer’s mindset. Why did he rape some victims with a certain pattern of behavior? Why did he kill certain victims but not others? Why did he sometimes cry after committing his crimes or whimper for his “Mommy”?
These are unnerving questions to explore, even for a professional. “I felt as if I’d come to know him well enough to get in his head when I needed to,” Holes writes. “Sometimes it worried me how easy it was for me to feel what I thought he was feeling. . . . As even-keeled as I was, there were times when I was shaken by the darkness I’d invited myself into.”
Many readers will be eager to venture into that darkness with Holes, but he cautions them to tread lightly. “I want the true-crime fans to make sure that people understand that true crime is real crime,” he says. “There are real people whose lives have been lost, whose families have been impacted. And the professionals that are working these cases are also impacted.”
Headshot photo of Paul Holes © Steve Babuljak