Killer on the Road by James Ellroy
My brother gave this book to me for Christmas, and to be honest, I was a little bit hesitant to start reading it. Not because I thought it would be bad. On the contrary, all of my siblings are creative, intelligent and insightful people, and I would trust any of their reading recommendations without a moment’s hesitation. I just can’t always promise that I’ll like what they recommend.
The book my brother gave me before that was Narcissus and Goldemund by Hermann Hesse. It wasn’t a bad book, really…. it’s just that I hated the main character Goldemund with a white hot passion and wished grave misfortune on him for the entire book. In fact, the main thing that kept me reading the book was the hope that he’d eventually fall down a dry well and break his legs, or perhaps get hit in the head by a two-by-four and live the rest of his life as a drooling moron. That the book aroused such great passion in me is a testament to the author’s skills, although I don’t think that was quite his goal. Let’s just say that there were a few unpleasantly familiar themes that made it hard for me to be an objective judge of his actions.
Anyway, I figure my brother couldn’t have known that, so I don’t blame him. This book, however, more than makes up.
Killer on the Road is a book about a serial killer. Now I know what you’re thinking – the serial killer angle has been done to death (HAR!). There are serial killers in all kinds of airport novels, comic books, movies, and TV shows. It would seem like there’s really no new way that you can do a serial killer, other than to have him use more and more horrifying means to kill people, and that’s all just flash. But trust me, even if you’re feeling a bit worn-out on serial killer fiction, I think you’ll want to read this one.
The standard portrayal of a serial killer in most modern literature is that of a cipher – we don’t know why he does what he does, and we don’t really care. The TV drama “Dexter” is an interesting exception, of course, although if I were a gambling man, I would suppose that show owes something of its origin to this book.
The traditional serial killer is a monster to be hunted down and destroyed. Even when serial killer characters are handled well, they’re still just foils against which we can play the police characters. Where the killer is a hyper-intellectual, the cop’s street knowledge and common sense will prevail. The twisted perversity of the murderer helps play up the straight morality of the cop – and society as a whole, by extension. Ultimately, of course, we just enjoy the chase in the sure and certain knowledge that we’ll see the Bad Guy in jail by the end of it.
In this book, the Bad Guy is in jail from the first page. Already, the author has taken away that carrot, and so we have to readjust our expectations a bit.
Martin Plunkett is a serial killer. Over the course of a decade, he murders nearly 70 people across America until he is finally caught in New York. This book is his story, and his explanation of why he did what he did.
Ellroy obviously did a whole lot of research for this book, probably both from the law enforcement side of serial killing and the psychological side. There would be no way to write the character of Plunkett as thoroughly, convincingly and – to a point – sympathetically as he did.
Make no mistake, Martin Plunkett is a monster. He kills without hesitation or remorse, and he does it to satisfy urges that normal people shouldn’t have. But at the same time, he is a human being. For all that his moral scale has been skewed waaaaaay off to the bad side, he still has worries, hopes and dreams. We get to see him grow up from childhood. He meets the circumstances and makes the choices that all eventually lead him to his vocation as serial killer. He didn’t just wake up one day and start killing, any more than I woke up one morning and started teaching English. There is a chain there, a somewhat logical series of events that he follows willingly. Once he gets going, the murders become defining moments of his life, rather than simply the horrible acts of a madman. The story isn’t about the dead. It’s about the killer.
In the end, what made Plunkett what he was? That is, after all, what the book is ostensibly trying to figure out, and it’s the question we always ask when we see something on the news that horrifies us. We want there to be a reason for such terrible things, because if there’s a reason for a problem, then the problem can be fixed. If we know that violence arises from factors X, Y, and Z, then all we have to do is correct for those things and it’ll be done. Right?
The answer is…. we don’t know. Was he a frustrated misanthrope, trying to get revenge on the world? Kind of. Was he an abused child who had no other way of expressing his childhood traumas? Sort of. Was he an avatar of true Evil, spawned by our corrupt and decaying culture? Maybe. It doesn’t matter to Plunkett, and therefore it doesn’t matter to us. He is what he is, and there’s no getting around that.
Ellroy could be warning us against trying to find such simple explanations for terrifying things. That in our search for order, there will always be the anomalies that simply cannot be fixed. There will always be people like Plunkett out there, and there’s not a whole lot we can do about it. In that way, he’s defying the expectations of serial killer fiction – the killer will never truly be understood and will never truly be caught. He’s always out there somewhere, even if the Plunketts of the world are in jail. There will always be a killer on the road somewhere…
“I will not let you pity me. Charles Manson, babbling in his cell, deserves pity; Ted Bundy, protesting his innocence in order to attract correspondence from lonely women, deserves contempt. I deserve awe for standing inviolate at the end of the journey I am about to describe, and since the force of my nightmare prohibits surcease, you will give it to me.”