Book Review: Killer on the Road

Killer Book Cover 2

Many books discuss the perils of highways: the noise, the pollution, the way they chunk up communities. This book makes the dangers more personal, more visceral, recounting the many deaths that have happened alongside interstate highways in the United States. “More highways meant more travel, more movement, more anonymity— all conducive to criminality,” states writer Ginger Strand.

Chapter 1 retells the story of Charles Starkweather, the hot-rod loving, high school drop out who idolized James Dean in the movie Rebel Without a Cause and was caught, with his girlfriend, on Highway 87 in Wyoming, fleeing Nebraska where he had killed eleven people. Chapter 2 examines hitchhiking during the 1960s and 1970s from the hippies who saw it as a countercultural way to car share and make connections to serial killers such as Ed Kemper who picked up and killed at least six young women in the San Francisco Bay Area. Chapter 3 links the disappearance and murder of African American boys and young men in Atlanta in the 1970s and 1980s with the disconnected, blighted landscapes created by highways plowing through neighborhoods. Chapter 4 looks at more serial killers (with the advent of media labels such as “I-5 Killer” and “Interstate Killer”) and Chapter 5 explores the deaths of truck stop prostitutes.

An interesting subtheme in the book is about how popular culture has picked up on this connection between highways and mayhem such as Jim Morrison’s song “Riders on the Storm” about a killer hitchhiker and Steven Spielberg’s film “Duel” (1971) where a menacing trucker stalks a motorist.

Another subtheme is the anti-car sentiments of the mid-1900s in America. It is easy to think that all Americans loved their cars in the 1950s but it was not that simple. Plenty of people were worried. Plenty of people saw downsides. Congress turned down the national interstate bill the first time they considered it (and then approved it the following year in 1956). Historian/critic Lewis Mumford spoke out against freeways at a 1957 urban planning conference. Even Reader’s Digest, a bland mainstream magazine, published an article titled, “Let’s Put the Brakes on the Highway Lobby!” As this book reveals, there were deep ambivalences about automobility even during the 1950s and 1960s.

This book can be a bumpy ride. There are so many murders, so many grisly men. You may wish for more connections, more pointed discussion about the intersections of crime and freeways. Chapter 6 does some of this by considering, although too briefly, the uptick in violence with increased mobility in Mexico, India and China. In terms of writing, there are paragraphs every so often that end with flippant statements. For instance, this line: “Behind the wheel, we are all psychopaths.” In a book littered with truly disturbed people, it hits a wrong note to suggest that all drivers contemplate murderous violence. Still, this book draws you and gets under your skin, making you feel genuinely creeped-out by car culture.

—- By Kelly Nelson

Killer on the Road: Violence and the American Interstate
Ginger Strand
University of Texas Press, 2012, 252 pages

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