Since the "Discovering America" series from University of Texas Press claims that America is a "largely undiscovered country with much of its amazing story yet to be told," it was perhaps inevitable that the series would gravitate towards cars and killers, two woeful signatures of modern American culture. The genius of Ginger Strand's Killer on the Road - a problematic and not entirely successful genius - is to combine those signatures: her subject is the connection between serial killers and the huge postwar expansion of the American interstate highway system.
In the 1970s, she contends, discontents had settled in about that highway system: "It had mowed down mountains, ploughed through communities, and divided up farms with little regard for the opinions of affected citizens. It had cost at least three times what it was expected to cost. It had accelerated white flight from cities, contributed to urban blight, and abetted the spread of environmentally destructive, aesthetically awful suburbia."
From its very conception, the system was immense: 69,000 kilometres of highways, sprawling and linked across the face of the entire country, responding to the growing craze of car ownership and personal mobility. The distances involved and the speed and convenience of personal transport were a new combination in the world, and that combination promptly darkened with new dangers, to the point where the staid Saturday Evening Post could report: "Drivers have had their heads bashed in with stones, have been dismembered and have been disembowelled by strangers they picked up on the highways." A writer of Strand's natural spirit and inquisitiveness hardly needs more than this to start digging.
The bulk of Killer on the Road, therefore, consists of a series of tense and vividly effective recountings of various killing sprees in 20th-century America. Strand is very good at retelling these stories and her readers will be riveted while she dramatises the story of stereotypical "juvenile delinquent" and car aficionado Charles Starkweather and his girlfriend-accomplice Caril Fugate, who terrorised 1958 Nebraska with a killing spree Strand explicitly connects with the open road: "The nation's well-being depended on growth, and that growth depended on cars."
After 11 murders, the pair went on trial in May 1958, and the jury took less than a day to turn in a conviction of first-degree murder. Strand tells us that the national response to Starkweather's crimes and conviction was "practically a referendum on automobility and all that it implied", but even this early in the book, cracks begin to appear in such contentions, since despite Starkweather's love of cars and driving, almost all of the murders for which he was electrocuted happened within walking distance of his house.
A far better illustration of Strand's central idea comes in the form of Ed Kemper of Helena, Montana, a physically enormous psychopath who preyed on hitchhikers he picked on highways in the San Francisco Bay Area in the early 1970s.
Kemper certainly used cruising as a method of predation, and the roads figured in his imagination as well, fuelling his dreams of being a California Highway Patrolman. He got a job as a flagman with the California Division of Highways and used his official insignia and clean-cut appearance to lure young female hitchhikers into his car, where he would murder them before bringing their bodies back to his home in Alameda for beheading and dismemberment, after which he would dispose of their body parts at various points along the road network. When Kemper was apprehended and confessed, he told the police he would never have acted out his dark fantasies if he hadn't been tempted by female hitchhikers, which certainly seems to shore up Strand's contention that America became more violent and more mobile at the same time.