In 2009, I was on a research trip to the James Ellroy archive at the University of South Carolina when I came across a letter addressed to Ellroy written by American Psycho author Bret Easton Ellis. In it he describes Ellroy’s novel Killer on the Road as ‘the best novel about a serial killer that I have ever read.’ This is truly remarkable praise considering American Psycho is one of the most famous (and infamous) novels about serial killers, and Killer on the Road is probably Ellroy’s least known work.
Killer on the Road’s obscurity may be attributed to its bizarre plot. Essentially, it is a confessional narrative, with the character of Martin Michael Plunkett giving a first-person account of his life from his troubled childhood to his voyeuristic sexual fantasies and finally the mass murders he commits. Does this form of self-portrayal make the serial killer sympathetic? No, for Plunkett has other off-putting qualities that keep the reader at bay, including his colossal ego. The ‘I’ only seeks to justify his killing spree: he regards his own uniqueness as good enough reason. But the reader is able to see the true reasons for his building rage– his repressed homosexuality and his social awkwardness among them. Feelings which are of course both common and normal, thus Ellroy taps into what truly fascinates and revolts the public about serial killers – that they could just as easily be one of us.
Although he has a huge ego, Plunkett aspires to be invisible to the society he lives in, and he becomes obsessed with a pulp comic book character named ‘Shroud Shifter’ who can make himself invisible. Yet unlike the comic book character, it is the failures of the system Plunkett exploits rather than any super intelligence or power, which gives him success. He drives across the US on a killing spree practically unnoticed, taking advantage of the bureaucracy and rivalry between state police departments. Plunkett is briefly captured by police halfway through the novel, leading to a plot twist which is as unexpected as it is ludicrous. In the final quarter of the novel, the invisibility (as an unknown murderer) and visibility (as the narrator and controller of events) are simultaneously challenged as the focus shifts from Plunkett’s viewpoint to the dogged FBI agent Thomas Dusenberry, who will engage Plunkett in a professional and emotional standoff.
Ellroy readers would probably cite the LA Quartet and Underworld USA novels as his best work. Killer on the Road has not fared so well critically. Published by Avon and released in 1986 under the title Silent Terror, later republished in 1990 under Ellroy’s preferred title Killer on the Road, the novel has been largely overlooked. Ellroy’s own feelings towards the novel are ambivalent. He has repeatedly stated he does not like serial killer novels and when challenged by one interviewer that Killer on the Road is a serial killer novel he replied, ‘Yeah, but at least it’s strictly from the serial killer’s viewpoint and not a roman policier on any level.’ But even this qualification is not strictly true given the late introduction of the Dusenberry character.
Despite its flaws, Killer on the Road is still a fascinating, suspenseful novel which is at its best satirising popular cultures warped fascination with serial killers. In a memorable encounter Plunkett humiliates Charles Manson when they are both serving time in the LA County Jail, as he finds the psychopathic hippie to be more banal than prophetic. Another scene features Plunkett wandering into a cinema where a documentary titled Save Our Seals is being played:
Seals were being beaten to death on the screen. Their yelps were what I had heard, and now they were joined with sobs from the audience. The sound was thrilling, but the sight was ugly and pathetic, so I closed my eyes. The absence of sight brought the taste of blood – the blood of every body I had ever desired. Soon I was sobbing, and the taste deepened until the yelps were replaced by music. I opened my eyes, and people were filing past me, giving out looks of sympathy and commiseration. My shoulders were patted and my hands were touched – as if were one of them. None of the people knew that the origin of my tears was in joy.
The contrast between Plunkett’s psychosis and the audience’s subliminal delight in their own grief is one of many striking images Ellroy conjures. Once again, Plunkett is invisible. People assume his tears make him ‘one of them’. Killer on the Road is not Ellroy’s greatest work, but it is an interesting novel nonetheless. Ellroy has seldom written about serial killers since its publication but a few words from his introduction to the little-read anthology Murder And Mayhem: An A-Z of the World’s Most Notorious Killers (1992) appear reminiscent of the main theme of Killer on the Road, ‘Fear the killers; pray for their victims; extend sympathy towards murderers’ childhoods. Think of the line between us and them as fragile and in need of jealously guarding.’
Steven Powell can be found on: http://venetianvase.co.uk/