It began on an unremarkable early autumn afternoon almost exactly 10 years ago, when a 55-year-old government analyst named James Martin was shot dead outside a supermarket in an equally unremarkable northern suburb of Washington DC. We didn't think much of it – at least not until next morning when four more people were murdered not far away in separate incidents in the space of a couple of hours, each of them by a single rifle bullet fired from a distance. And then we realised: a sniper or maybe some snipers were on a killing spree in our midst.
What made those days in early October 2002 so frightening was the sheer randomness of events. Parents kept their children away from school; you looked for the slightest hint of anything unusual when you stepped outside. By the time John Allen Muhammad and his teenage sidekick Lee Boyd Malvo were caught three weeks later, they had killed 10 people and critically wounded three others in DC, Maryland and Virginia.
The two lived in, and operated out of, a humdrum Chevrolet Caprice saloon, converted so that the sniper could lie across the back seat into the boot, and fire through a small hole. It then emerged that the shootings were the climax to a cross-country rampage that had earlier taken them from the Pacific north-west to the Deep South and finally to the capital region – and at that point, oddly, things became more comprehensible. However shocking the crimes, you realised Muhammad and Malvo were but the latest variation on an eternal American theme.
Memories of the DC snipers flooded back the other day as I was reading Killer on the Road, a slender but enthralling book by the novelist and cultural writer Ginger Strand, which draws out the connections between the development of the US interstate highway system since the 1950s, and the violence the system has helped to turn into myth.
In the grand scheme of American crime, highways are surely a small overall contributor to the roughly 15,000 murders that are committed in the country each year. But the pairing has an extraordinary grip on the collective imagination. Take the title of Strand's book. "There's a killer on the road/His brain is squirmin' like a toad," sang the rock legend Jim Morrison in "Riders on the Storm". The reference, many Morrison fans believe, is to his 1969 film project HWY: An American Pastoral, in which the singer plays a hitch-hiker on a murder spree. That character may in turn be modelled on Billy Cook, a hoodlum who, back in the early 1950s before interstates existed, posed as a hitch-hiker as he travelled from Missouri to California, killing six strangers in 22 days.
The mass murderers who capture British imaginations – the John Christies, the Fred Wests – tend to operate in a small and claustrophobic space, dispatching and disposing of their victims in their house or garden. America has killers like that, too. But those who catch its collective imagination are the ones on the road.
Highways are central to the American experience, indeed to America's image of itself. Only in America would people write a song about a road, Route 66. Interstates carry you across a continent, on existential journeys of escape and self-reinvention. They have bred a parallel America in constant motion. As they sweep you from one Anywhere USA to another, they homogenise a detailed, intensely varied country. But that very soullessness makes them dangerous. When a movie opens with a panning shot of a highway snaking across an empty vista, you feel instinctively that something bad is going to happen, that the American Dream is about to turn into an American nightmare.
And in real life, all too often, it has. Long before Billy Cook, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were showing how murder and mayhem could be spread from moving vehicles. Or take Herbert Clutter, the wealthy farmer and his family murdered by a pair of convicts on parole who had driven across Kansas to find them, in the crime immortalised in Truman Capote's In Cold Blood.
Ginger Strand weaves the story of the development of America's interstates, the largest civil engineering project in history, with the crimes and criminals who developed with it. She starts with a 19-year-old misfit named Charles Starkweather back in early 1958, when I-80 was still being built across Nebraska: he set off in a second-hand Ford with his girlfriend on a rampage which began in that state and ended in Wyoming, leaving 10 people dead along the way. The book concludes with today's trucking industry and the truck stops that have become magnets for crimes of every sort: robbery, drugs, prostitution and murder.
The true "golden age" of the highway killers, however, was the 1970s and '80s. There was Ed Kemper, the "Co-ed Killer", who picked up young female hitch-hikers on the highways around Santa Cruz, south of San Francisco, before murdering them. There was Roger Reece Kibbe, the "I-5 Strangler", who dumped his victims' bodies along the highways of California's Central Valley. Kibbe was deadly but so nondescript, writes Strand, that the mother of one of his victims sat in a car with him for half an hour and couldn't even remember what he looked like.
But the ultimate beneficiary of this "anonymity factor" was Ted Bundy, perhaps the most celebrated of all America's travelling serial killers, who may have murdered more than 30 women in at least six states in the 1970s. He twice escaped prison but was finally executed in Florida on 24 January 1989. Bundy was handsome, charming and intelligent, but in an understated, forgettable sort of way. At bottom, he was as random and soulless as the highways he travelled. He was the perfect killer on the road.