Killer on the Road: Violence and the American Interstate by Ginger Strand

Killer on the Road: Violence and the American Interstate (Discovering America) BY Ginger Strand. University of Texas Press. Hardcover, 222 pages. $25.
The cover of Killer on the Road: Violence and the American Interstate (Discovering America)

It’s no coincidence that the title of Killer on the Road, Ginger Strand’s analysis of the interstate system and the violence intertwined within it, sounds familiar. That phrase echoes throughout the past sixty years of American pop culture, from Jim Morrison’s breathy warnings in “Riders on the Storm” to James Ellroy’s pulpy noir of the same name about a Manson-obsessed schizophrenic. “If a song or book title contains the word Interstate or Freeway, expect mayhem,” Strand warns. And the book demonstrates why this is the case. Killer is a titillating, clever volume that mixes the sweeping sociological assertions of an urban-studies textbook with the chilling gore of true-crime stories.

Strand traces the evolution of the highway program, which began in 1956 under the Eisenhower administration, from an emblem of national progress and newfound social mobility to conduit for anonymous crime. Killer begins with a well-researched passage about Charles Starkweather, a Nebraska teenager, hot-rod enthusiast, and James Dean wannabe whose eleven-person killing spree ignited fears about the corrupting influence of automobiles on America’s youth. Starkweather’s methods were grisly—he and his young girlfriend murdered her family and stuffed her mother’s bludgeoned body down an outhouse toilet—but far more disconcerting was his nonchalance after the work was done. He stayed at his victims’ home to play gin rummy and eat junk food for a week while bodies decomposed in the backyard.

Much of the momentum in Killer derives from the undeniable lure of the serial killer, whether they’re painted as vicious sophisticates, like the creepy star of Showtime’s Dexter or the professorial cannibal Hannibal Lector, or as pure psychopaths—the stuff of police procedurals, horror movies and Halloween masks. Strand’s psychopaths, however, are more pathetic: tatty creatures and charmless social misfits. Even though she impresses upon readers that real-life murder sprees are “ugly, unpleasant, and no fun to think about,” Strand’s book consciously harnesses the mythology around those figures and ties it to the evolution of the American expressway. It’s a smart move: Transportation history can be dry material. It washes down easier with a side of tabloid lure.

Within these graphic serial-killer case histories, Strand deftly weaves an account of almost sixty years of infrastructure development. The story of coed-hunter Ed Kemper, a hulking sociopath with deep-seated mommy issues who dismembered eight young women, comes with a lesson on the growing 1970s anti-blacktop movement. Strand links the tentacles of California’s featureless urban sprawl with the indelible blandness of Roger Reece Kibbe, the “I-5 Strangler” whose face was so nondescript that a woman who had been in his passenger seat before he abducted her daughter was unable to recall what he looked like.

But Killer falters when it veers too far into sociological explanations. Strand’s chapter on the horrifying spate of child disappearances that took place in Atlanta between 1979 and 1981 over-reaches. Unlike the other entries, the Atlanta case isn’t focused on a single killer, but on an unsettling trend and a patsy, Wayne Williams, a small-time, sleazy radio producer who the police blamed for at least a dozen more of the child murders than he likely committed. Without a plausible bloodthirsty central actor, Strand isn’t able to further her hypothesis that the development of the interstate led to the creation of loner sociopath killers.

Still, Strand has an eye for the right unnerving detail: Ed Kemper’s attempt to shut his mother up by throwing her larynx down a garbage disposal, and Starkweather’s sneering assertion, “I always wanted to be a criminal, but not this big ‘a one.” Perhaps the most interesting part of Killer is Strand’s look at trucker murders, focused on the bumbling butcher Bruce Mendenhall, who left victims sprinkled along seven states. Strand examines the working conditions of the long-haul life, questioning whether the conditions of the job—poorly designed rest stops, constant isolation, a grinding schedule with little relief, and high turnover—might be breeding grounds for killers like Mendenhall. Strand implies that rest stop parking lots, where methamphetamines are available in ample quantities and transient prostitutes move from cab to cab looking for takers, could encourage anonymous slaughter.

But are the evolution and scale of the interstate system actually to blame for such violence? Perhaps not. At the end of her journey, Strand takes a detour to look for the site of Starkweather’s last casualty, traveling shoe salesman Merle Collision. Instead of a monument to Collision, Strand finds a plaque commemorating pioneers who perished in a struggle with Native Americans on a trail. “The road,” she concludes, “has always been a dangerous place.”

Margaret Eby's writing has appeared in The New York Times, Salon, and Slate, among other publications. She lives in Brooklyn.