Killer on the Road: Violence and the American Interstate

Killer on the Road: Violence and the American Interstate

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by Ginger Strand
     
 

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Starting in the 1950s, Americans eagerly built the planet's largest public work: the 42,795-mile National System of Interstate and Defense Highways. Before the concrete was dry on the new roads, however, a specter began haunting them--the highway killer. He went by many names: the "Hitcher," the "Freeway Killer," the "Killer on the Road," the "I-5 Strangler,"

Overview

Starting in the 1950s, Americans eagerly built the planet's largest public work: the 42,795-mile National System of Interstate and Defense Highways. Before the concrete was dry on the new roads, however, a specter began haunting them--the highway killer. He went by many names: the "Hitcher," the "Freeway Killer," the "Killer on the Road," the "I-5 Strangler," and the "Beltway Sniper." Some of these criminals were imagined, but many were real. The nation's murder rate shot up as its expressways were built. America became more violent and more mobile at the same time.
Killer on the Road tells the entwined stories of America's highways and its highway killers. There's the hot-rodding juvenile delinquent who led the National Guard on a multistate manhunt; the wannabe highway patrolman who murdered hitchhiking coeds; the record promoter who preyed on "ghetto kids" in a city reshaped by freeways; the nondescript married man who stalked the interstates seeking women with car trouble; and the trucker who delivered death with his cargo. Thudding away behind these grisly crime sprees is the story of the interstates--how they were sold, how they were built, how they reshaped the nation, and how we came to equate them with violence.
Through the stories of highway killers, we see how the "killer on the road," like the train robber, the gangster, and the mobster, entered the cast of American outlaws, and how the freeway--conceived as a road to utopia--came to be feared as a highway to hell.

Editorial Reviews

Bloomberg
"Ginger Strand is in possession of a sharp eye, a biting wit, a beguiling sense of fun—and a magnificent obsession."
Booklist
"Strand proves herself to be a first-rate storyteller."
American History
"Who knew that these marvelously engineered clover-leafed roadways would not just drive the economy but also create a deadly combination of social transience and personal anonymity, destabilizing sociopaths and psychopaths while making them feel invulnerable to legal consequences? . . . Killer on the Road merges the chilling appeal of true-crime stories with compelling social history."
New York Times - Dwight Garner
". . . part true-crime entertainment, part academic exegesis, part political folk ballad. . . . Strand’s cross-threaded tales of drifters, stranded motorists, and madmen got its hooks into me. Reading Ms. Strand’s thoughtful book is like driving a Nash Rambler after midnight on a highway to hell."
New York Times Book Review - Marilyn Stasio
". . . draws startling parallels between the inexorable advance of the Interstate System and the proliferation of killers who were pathologically stimulated by that long, open road."
Newsweek
". . . a hybrid of cultural historian and indefatigable roving reporter, who can't help taking quirky pleasure sometimes in what ought to be an utterly grim story."
Kirkus Reviews
Strand (Inventing Niagara: Beauty, Power, and Lies, 2008, etc.) explores the connection between America's sprawling highway system and the pathology of the murderers who have made them a killing ground. Alternating case histories of notorious serial killers who exploited the mobility and anonymity made possible by the interstates with a history of the political and social forces that built them, the author strives to debunk popular notions of the resourceful, brilliant psychopath--most of the men profiled here were uncharismatic, not particularly bright and eerily ordinary in affect and appearance. She also tries to link the psychological effects of the lonely open road to the will to murder. Strand's sociological assertions can seem a bit notional and flimsily argued, and the history of the politics behind the building of the interstates is unsurprisingly dry, but the case histories of the murderers and their crimes exert a queasy fascination. The author offers well-researched summations of the Charles Starkweather/Caril Fugate multi-state spree, the appalling history of the Atlanta child murders and the prostitute killings of trucker Bruce Mendenhall, among others. The chilling effect of these stories is difficult to shake. The Mendenhall material is particularly interesting in its look at truck-stop design and the trucking lifestyle and the ways in which they may actually precipitate violent behavior. The narrative is tedious for stretches, not unlike a long cross-country drive, but the grim stories of murder on the highway may do for road trips what Jaws did for surfing. An interesting detour into a true-crime niche.
The New York Times
Ms. Strand's slim book is part true-crime entertainment, part academic exegesis, part political folk ballad. I don't wish to overpraise it: it has soft spots; it frequently deals with material covered in better books; you will not confuse the author's modest prose with Nabokov's. Yet her cross-threaded tales of drifters, stranded motorists and madmen got its hooks into me. Reading Ms. Strand's thoughtful book is like driving a Nash Rambler after midnight on a highway to hell.
—Dwight Garner
The New York Times Book Review
…draws startling parallels between the inexorable advance of the Interstate System and the proliferation of killers who were pathologically stimulated by that long, open road…More than half a century since that first stretch of asphalt cooled, [Strand] concludes, we are still of two minds about our interstates: "We can't decide if they are delivering the American dream or destroying it." The originality of Strand's thesis comes from the way she tracks the evolution of these cultural qualms by scrutinizing the various types of "bogeymen" who came to represent them. Each of the chapters in her book concentrates on an infamous highway killer and the particular threat he personified to his generation.
—Marilyn Stasio

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780292726376
Publisher:
University of Texas Press
Publication date:
04/15/2012
Pages:
222
Product dimensions:
5.60(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.30(d)

Meet the Author

Ginger Strand is the author of Inventing Niagara, a Border’s Original Voices choice, and Flight, a novel. Her nonfiction has appeared in many places, including Harper’s, OnEarth, The Believer, and Orion, where she is a contributing editor. She grew up mostly in Michigan and now lives in New York City, but spends a lot of time on the road.

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Killer on the Road: Violence and the American Interstate 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
LaylaCD More than 1 year ago
The author makes some very interesting points and tells the tales of several serial killers who used the interstate highways in a compelling manner. However, she doesn't always develop her main theme, namely the role of the interstate highways and the reasons serial killers used them. Very worthwhile effort however, I read it cover to cover.