By Kim Cross
Grand Central Press, 2023
Hardcover: $32.00; Kindle: $16.99; Audio CD: $31.85
Genre: Nonfiction/True Crime
Reviewed by Danny Gamble

In Light of All Darkness book cover

For true-crime literature enthusiasts, Kim Cross has served up a doozy in her latest book, In Light of All Darkness: Inside the Polly Klaas Kidnapping and the Search for America’s Child. With an eye toward microscopic detail, Cross engrosses her readers in the sad tale of the Northern California girl who disappeared one fateful night in October 1993. Cross’ story is at times lyrical, at others analytical, and at still others academic. Her author’s note reads in part, “The focus of the book is the [Polly Klaas] investigation and the lessons learned.”

Polly’s story begins at 3 p.m. on October 1, 1993, when the final bell of the school week rings. Polly had invited two friends, Gillian Pelham and Kate McLean, to a sleepover. Typical tweens, the girls occupy their time with clothes, make-up, and friendship. Boys are the least of their concern. Then the unspeakable happens in idyllic Petaluma, California. In a lyrical narrative worthy of Truman Capote’s nonfiction novel In Cold Blood, Cross relates in detail the abduction and search for Polly Klaas.

On the night of the sleepover, a large, bearded, knife-wielding stranger “who smelled like fear,” enters Polly’s room and binds the girls, but assures their safety. He tells Gillian and Kate to lie still and count to 1000 before they free themselves. He then leaves the room with Polly. The manhunt begins almost immediately.

The search for Polly includes thousands of flyers posted in the San Francisco Bay area, hundreds of volunteers, pleas from Petaluma native and popular young movie star Wynona Rider, and television broadcast segments on America’s Most Wanted. The hunt also includes a myriad of personnel from so many law enforcement agencies that Cross must take a timeout partway through her story to recap the chain of command. Naturally, so many Type A personalities cause friction among the different departments and slow the investigation.

Cross’ narrative may end in tears, but Polly Klaas was memorialized by those who knew her and especially by those who didn’t. Industrial Light & Magic, George Lucas’ special effects film studio department, lit the dim St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church, the largest church in Petaluma. St. Vincent could hold 1,500. The service was broadcast by CNN, and as many as 5,000 lined the street in a slight drizzle. Joan Baez opened with “Amazing Grace.” Gov. Pete Wilson offered the eulogy and a message from President Bill Clinton, and Linda Ronstadt closed the service with Polly’s favorite song, “Somewhere Out There” from the movie An American Tale.

After a sixty-five-day investigation, law enforcement captured the perpetrator of the heinous crime, a two-time convicted kidnapper. Enough said.

In her epilogue, Cross gives the purpose of her writing this book: “The purpose of this [book] is to chronicle a seminal investigation that has served as a valuable case study for three decades. Its insights have trained investigators in all disciplines.”

Some people still argue that a 12-year-old black girl would not have received such national and international attention. Cross, though, recognizes what’s become known as the Missing White Woman Syndrome and acknowledges the 1997 disappearance of and search for 12-year-old Georgia Leah Moses, a black girl also from Petaluma. Petaluma native Tom Waits immortalized her in his song “They Call Her Georgia Lee” (sic).

Petaluma is not the Wild West nor Capone’s Chicago. Kidnappings and child murders are rare. In Light of All Darkness simply highlights a single sad tale of one innocent 12-year-old girl.

Former AWF Communication Director Danny Gamble writes from Montevallo, Ala.