Killer on the Road
First edition cover
|Media type||Print (Paperback)|
|Pages||280 pp (first edition, paperback)|
|ISBN||0-380-89934-5 (first edition, paperback)|
|Preceded by||Suicide Hill (1985)|
|Followed by||The Black Dahlia (1987)|
Killer on the Road is a crime novel by James Ellroy. First published in 1986, it is a non-series book between the Lloyd Hopkins Trilogy and the L.A. Quartet. It was first released by Avon as a mass-market paperback original under the title Silent Terror, and has since been republished in the US under Ellroy's original title Killer on the Road, first as a mass-market paperback in 1990 and later as a trade paperback in 1999.
After the Lloyd Hopkins Trilogy, written in the third person, Killer on the Road returns to the first-person narrative style of Ellroy's first two novels. For the first time in Ellroy's career, however, the story is written from a criminal's point of view. The basic premise—a serial killer who uses a large van as a mobile killing room in which he murders hitchhikers—was apparently inspired by the case of Lawrence Bittaker and Roy Norris. As revealed in Ellroy's autobiography My Dark Places, several elements of the main character's young adult life (such as being a peeping tom and breaking into women's homes to steal undergarments) were lifted directly from Ellroy's own crimes as a juvenile.
Michael Martin Plunkett is a child genius who comes from a broken home: His father is a hustler and his mother is an alcoholic and drug addict who engages in a series of one-night stands. After his parents divorce, Plunkett takes solace in a series of disturbing fantasies in which he re-assembles his classmates' body parts. The fantasies lead Plunkett to becoming a peeping Tom, and from the time he is seven until he turns eleven, he spends all of his free time spying on his neighbors and observing people having intercourse. Before he can graduate junior high, Plunkett's teachers, having noticed his withdrawn nature in class, send him to the school psychologist, who identifies Plunkett as disturbed but nonetheless passes him to high school after Plunkett emotionally manipulates him into a fit of rage.
In high school, Plunkett, now realizing that there is something different about himself after his session with the school psychologist, seeks out some means of grounding himself psychologically. He becomes obsessed with a series of comic books and fixates on the main villain, "Shroud Shifter," a jewel thief obsessed with becoming invisible. Plunkett comes to the conclusion that his own goal should become "invisibility" in the sense that he can move through life as nondescript as possible.
Plunkett steals from his mother to finance a series of wardrobes which will allow him to blend in with as diverse a number of people as possible; she punishes him, and in retribution, he switches her muscle relaxers with massive quantities of amphetamines. She suffers a psychotic break and slits her writs; Plunkett drinks her blood and then calls an ambulance, reporting the suicide. He is placed in the foster care of an LAPD officer, whom Plunkett sets about manipulating in order to gain knowledge of how to become a good criminal. He begins committing a series of fetishistic burglaries in which he breaks into women's homes, kills their pets, and steals from them after watching them engage in intercourse.
Following the Tate/LaBianca Murders, Plunkett attempts to meet Charles Manson, only to improperly identify a generic hippie as Manson and break into an apartment where he is having sex. The hippie apprehends Plunkett, and Plunkett is sentenced to a year in prison.
In prison, Plunkett works to perfect his body while studying under other criminals and learning their techniques. Doing janitorial work as a trusty, he encounters the recently incarcerated Manson; furious that the rambling, barely coherent Manson is being held up as a paragon of evil, Plunkett resolves that upon his release he will become the kind of killer truly worthy of that distinction.
Upon his release from prison, Plunkett delves further into his fantasy life, which begins to spill over into his waking life as Shroud Shifter appears to him in a series of schizophrenic visions, encouraging him to commit more violent crimes. Finally, one night, Plunkett abruptly lashes out and kills a girl and her boyfriend who had invited him to their apartment to smoke marijuana. Plunkett successfully covers up his crime by making the murder appear to be the work of drug dealers; now fully entrenched in a version of his fantasy life that overlaps with reality, Plunkett embarks on a road trip across the western United States, picking up hitch hikers and brutally mutilating and murdering them, then selling their belongings to fences to finance his lifestyle.
As time progresses and his body count rises, Plunkett perfects his techniques, outfitting a Dodge van with a series of hidden compartments and living amenities so that it can act as both his mobile home and murder factory.
After hastily killing a man in the snow, Plunkett is apprehended by Wisconsin State Police Sergeant Ross Anderson, who reveals himself to be a serial killer responsible for three (later seven) brutal rape/murders of young coeds. Anderson and Plunkett become romantically involved and Anderson uses his influence to protect Plunkett as his own murders increase in number and brutality.
FBI agent Thomas Dusenberg is tasked with identifying and apprehending Anderson and Plunkett. He eventually captures Anderson, who gives up Plunkett in exchange for immunity from the death penalty. After Plunkett sees his own photo on wanted posters, he reasons—using a chain of paranoid logic—that Anderson's family identified him as a serial killer. Plunkett goes to Anderson's house, where he violently mutilates and murders his entire family. In the course of killing the last member of Anderson's family, Plunkett experiences a moment of lucidity during which he realizes that Anderson's family had no role in his being identified. Plunkett nevertheless desecrates all of Anderson's family's corpses, then goes to a motel where he identifies himself to the manager and waits to be turned in.
Eventually, Dusenberg arrives with a strike team, and Plunkett surrenders. He only confesses to crimes in non-death-penalty states, assuring via an immunity deal that he will never be executed. He is sentenced to four consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole, and placed into solitary confinement in Sing Sing Prison. Remaining in a catatonic state for an extended period of time, he finally breaks his silence by contacting a publisher and asking for assistance writing his memoirs (which make up the bulk of the novel).
Dusenberg, troubled by Plunkett's motiveless murders, seeks solace in his family, only to discover that his wife has been having an affair. When he confronts her about it, she attempts to rationalize it before begging for forgiveness, all the while attempting to shift blame off of herself. Dusenberg sells his diary to Plunkett's agent for use in Plunkett's book, then commits suicide, leaving his entire estate to his children.
In Sing Sing, Plunkett finishes his memoirs. Believing that he has reached the pinnacle of human existence, and robbed of further murder opportunities, he announces his intention to commit suicide by using his mental prowess to will himself into a state of brain death.