Book review: Killer on the Road, by Ginger Strand
America became more violent and more mobile at the same time.
Were they linked? Did highways lead to highway violence? Yes and no. More highways meant more travel, more movement, more anonymity—all conducive to criminality. Highway users could become easy victims: stranded motorists, hitchhikers, drifters, and truck stop prostitutes were vulnerable to roving predators. But most killers are not predators, most predators don’t roam the country, and highways have never been the main stage for the nation’s bad actors. In the cultural unconscious, however, highways and violence quickly became entwined.
Why should this be? Why should one of our most impressive public works evoke in us feelings of fear and unease? Indeed, a few deranged individuals did use the highway system, and the anonymous landscapes it created, as a means to murder. But the response to those crimes went well beyond their actual danger to the population.
In Killer on the Road, author Ginger Strand quotes F. Scott Fitzgerald, that “the mark of an intelligent person is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time.” Which I found particularly apt, because my impression while reading was that Strand made her case both ways – that America’s expanding interstate network had certainly made would-be killers more mobile and potentially anonymous, but sometimes the roads seemed merely an accessory in the stories told here, not a necessary element.
This felt especially true on the 1950s case of Charles Starkweather, the first murderer profiled in detail, who was more caught up in the have-and-have-not culture of postwar America, which of course included new models of cars, than as someone for whom infrastructure was a crucial component.
Other chapters seemed more relevant, especially one about cross-country truckers and the culture that’s sprung up around them, with its proliferation of “lot lizard” sex workers and a particular kind of loneliness, psychological and physical stress, and the question of whether the work of trucking itself attracts potential murderous types, or whether the stressful, abnormal conditions of the work and the opportunities it affords just begin to appeal to a driver over time. The statistics, that “At least twenty-five former truckers are currently serving time in American prisons for serial murder,” are certainly eyebrow-raising.
Since Strand admits that the link between the road and serial murder is tenuous, there’s exploration into how this myth became firmly implanted in the national consciousness. This was especially interesting and I wish more had been devoted to it. It comes across almost as a kind of archetypal fear. I remember my mother becoming hyper-vigilant at highway rest areas, and regardless of location always reminding me to lock car doors the second I was inside, and some of the scariest crime stories I’ve read, like one in Kathryn Casey’s Deliver Us, involve a person stalking or abducting someone on the road.
There must be something to the idea of the road as easy hunting ground, better at facilitating quick escape or taking advantage of a driver in trouble, plus the idea of an anonymous boogeyman moving in the dark that makes long stretches of road seem nightmarish.
Strand makes a great effort in unpacking all this, exploring cultural touchpoints like horror movie tropes involving hitchhikers, and even the Doors’ “Riders on the Storm” with its reference to a murderous hitchhiker, providing the book’s title.
The book alternates between chapters examining one killer’s case in detail with ones covering the history and politics behind roadbuilding. The murderers vacillate between the most notorious (Bundy, Kemper) and lesser knowns (Roger Kibbe). About the infrastructural history, I thought I might have to skim, and while it wasn’t the juiciest thing I’ve ever read, it wasn’t as tough to get through as I anticipated. It’s dry but not a desert. The US depends extraordinarily heavily on our interstate system, and learning something about how that came about and unsurprisingly the massive political machinations involved and the connection to our economy and even national identity is interesting.
She covers urban blight for example, and how highway construction widened the gap between rich and poor and effectively ghettoized certain areas. This section ties to the Atlanta Child Murders, and Strand provides a different perspective than FBI profiler John Douglas, who worked the case and described it in Mindhunter, so from the true crime side this stoked my curiosity, not to mention the excellent way she weaves race into this narrative.
To the planners, using highways to “knife through the poorer sections” was not violence, but surgery. And there was little doubt about who needed that surgery: African American migration into urban centers during the world wars had changed the racial makeup of cities. For planners, “urban blight” was often synonymous with “black neighborhood.”
What happened in Atlanta showed how the remaking of our built world created an environment conducive to crime, and how it had fostered the victimization of poor children … It was easier and more pleasant to think the problem could be solved by jailing an obnoxious young man than it was to consider attacking the conditions that made the entire tragedy possible: a racist past, an impoverished—and impoverishing—environment, and a built world that enshrined them both in concrete and brick.
Also fascinating in the infrastructure chapters was how much J. Edgar Hoover hated hitchhikers. Was it because he foresaw this problem of potential murderers using the highways to expedite and expand their crimes? No, more nefarious: student protesters.
The FBI—impelled in part by Hoover’s hatred for student activists who were hitching to civil rights and antiwar demonstrations—joined the campaign, issuing scary statistics and creating a poster titled “Death in Disguise” that featured an ominous hitchhiker. “Is he a happy vacationer or an escaping criminal,” the poster asked, “a pleasant companion or a sex maniac—a friendly traveler or a vicious murderer?”
And yes, plenty of images included like these posters, and they’re as wondrous as they sound.
In the docuseries “The Killing Season”, which begins ostensibly as investigating the Long Island Serial Killer, the filmmakers eventually followed leads and confronted a disturbing murder map of the interstates, plus some of the truckers involved in crimes. This was so compelling and seemed to have a lot of potential, part of why I wanted to read this was to know more about this angle and Strand delivers:
Press releases introducing the Highway Serial Killings Initiative included a frightening-looking map pinpointing more than five hundred bodies found on or near highways… Represented by red dots, the bodies cluster around major transfer points in the interstate network… But no state is immune: the red dots spread along the interstates like a pathogen carried by car.
Unfortunately, there aren’t many answers yet about what’s happening here.
This next passage from the Atlanta child murders section sums up the book for me. These are all absorbing stories, they share the common thread of the road, but the various cultural developments the roads contributed to is the bigger story. Strand makes that point clear, but it gets lost sometimes in the infrastructure background. Was it still a compelling read with thoughtful, well-made arguments and modern takes on older crimes? Absolutely.
The problem with Dettlinger’s map was that it didn’t really explain anything. It helped make the case that many of the killings were connected, but it didn’t offer any rationale… It didn’t paint a picture of the killer or elucidate why kids were vulnerable to him. Dettlinger, too, was focusing on the roads rather than on the world the roads had made.
Killer on the Road:
Violence and the American Interstate
by Ginger Strand
published 2012 by University of Texas Press