STARKWEATHER: The Untold Story of the Killing Spree that Changed America, nonfiction by Harry N. MacLean, reviewed by Anna LlewellynA Nonfiction Book by Harry N. MacLean, reviewed by Anna Llewellyn

The stranger asks no greater glory till life is through than to spend one last minute in wilderness.
—Charles Starkweather, in a poem for his mother

Nineteen-year-old Charles Starkweather was “the first modern-day mass killer,” the first American murderer motivated by “the sheer psychopathic thrill of it,” according to true crime author Harry N. MacLean. A surprising claim, given how few know of the Starkweather case. Though Charles’s 1958 killing spree through Nebraska and Wyoming inspired various works like Terrence Malick’s Badlands, Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers, and Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, Charles is not deemed biographically binge-worthy by the streaming powers-that-be unlike his peers Dahmer, Bundy, or fellow spree-killer Andrew Cunanan. In a time when true crime stories are more accessible than ever, could it be possible for the founding father of modern murder to fly so successfully under the radar just sixty-five years after his groundbreaking crimes? MacLean certainly thinks so.

What sets MacLean’s newest book Starkweather: The Untold Story of the Killing Spree that Changed America apart from other books in the inundated true crime genre is not only his aim to shed light on this key figure in American crime but his embracing of the very feature that keeps the story off of streamers and out of the modern public’s imagination: it’s maddening unknowability. The Starkweather case is full of unanswerable questions, the pesky unknowns that leave audiences feeling susceptible to random violence rather than able to control it. Leaving questions unanswered does not sound like the greatest tactic for enticing readers, but truth-seekers will be pleased to find that MacLean is much more concerned with reality than marketability. Three big unknowns simmer under his account of the crimes; there’s the question of why Charles did it, the puzzle of the wildly differing firsthand accounts of the killings, and the biggest unknown of all; just how guilty is the girl who accompanied Charles for the entire spree, his fourteen-year-old girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate?

Harry N. MacLean

MacLean is ranked alongside the likes of Truman Capote and Errol Morris as one of America’s top true crime writers for his book In Broad Daylight about the mysterious killing of Ken Rex McElroy. Like In Broad Daylight, Starkweather presents a gripping journey through the lives, crimes, and trials of its subjects that is pieced together with MacLean’s meticulous research. Unlike In Broad Daylight, Starkweather is personal. MacLean is from Lincoln, Nebraska, where ten of the eleven murders took place. He was fifteen years old in 1958 and lived just a mile away from the house where the wealthy Ward family was killed. His brother was in shop class with Charles in junior high. MacLean’s lived experience of the case does not bias his retelling but instead adds rich detail to the context of 1950s Nebraska as the thriving “beating heart of the time of innocence.” He withholds his personal take on the big unknowns until after he has already methodically outlined Charles’s version and Caril’s version of the crimes, letting readers formulate their judgments first. Just as he illuminates Charles as a pivotal American figure, MacLean uses poetic descriptions of Nebraska’s past as an important stop on the Oregon Trail for pioneers heading into the unknown western wilderness to deepen readers’ understanding of the landscape as a crucial thread in the American tapestry, not just a dull, corn-filled middle-of-nowhere as some might see it. Crime aficionados will appreciate his refreshingly measured balance of insight and impartiality, especially regarding Charles’s upbringing in the midcentury midwestern city.

Despite MacLean’s insider perspective on Charlie’s childhood, he does not linger on theories of the killer’s “origin story,” a trap that many true crime stories fall into in order to provide audiences a neat explanation of why devastating crimes happen in the first place. It’s tempting to search for some feature of Charles’s early years that should have indicated the trouble to come—the bullying he faced or his affinity for violent comics, perhaps—but MacLean dares to say what we’re afraid to admit; these searches are usually in vain. There is just no way to know exactly what unique combination of biology and experience pushes a killer over the edge. What is clear to MacLean, however, is Charles’s overwhelming need for control. Everything the boy did was to claim control; his leather jacket, his gravity-defying cigarette, his James Dean haircut—all were carefully manicured to escape the “bow-legged redheaded woodpecker” name given to him by childhood bullies. He begged his lawyers not to use the insanity defense, his best chance for escaping execution, to maintain the guns-a-blazing outlaw image he envisioned for himself. His expressed desire for the “wilderness” of life in the poem written for his mother was another attempt at curating this reputation, but all he ever actually desired was the opposite of wilderness: predictability, order, and complete jurisdiction over the impact he had in life and death. MacLean’s analysis of how killing became embroiled in Charles’s need for control is not satisfying, but that is because of its bleak honesty. “The killing made him feel good,” he writes. “That was the short of it.” In a culture in which unlicensed psychoanalysis provides a quick and trendy answer to any and all problems—as evidenced by the rampant therapy-speak on social media—MacLean’s forthright refrain stands out as remarkable and true.

Most presume that Charles implicated Caril in the killings, claiming she egged on the killing of her own family as well as murdering two of the female victims with her own hands, to fulfill his Bonnie and Clyde vision. He wanted to sit in the electric chair with his girlfriend on his knee, as any outlaw worth his salt should. It is unlikely that Caril committed any murders herself, but her culpability as an accomplice is still the most debated unknown of the case to this day. MacLean poses all of the relevant questions; How could she not have known her family was dead, as Caril claims, when she and Charles stayed in the home they were killed in for six days after their deaths, watching TV and slugging down Pepsi? Why didn’t she attempt to escape when she had ample opportunity? Can any fourteen-year-old be held accountable for such crimes? Would she have ever become violent if she had not met Charles Starkweather? Likely not, but you could reasonably say the same for the likes of Karla Homolka, Rose West, and Myra Hindley, the female half of notorious serial killer couples. Are they not blameworthy for taking an active part in their partners’ heinous murders? MacLean never claims to have answers to the unanswerable, but, by the book’s final part, he refuses to ignore the impact the lingering mysteries have on pop culture, modern crime, the victim’s relatives, and MacLean himself. In the book’s introduction, MacLean explains that he has avoided writing this story for thirty-five years because of his ties to it, as he prefers to write with an unmuddied outsider’s perspective, finding authority in neutrality. In the epilogue, he defies this instinct and ventures back to Lincoln to face his past and his uncertainty about the case head-on. He even goes to a nursing home to face Caril herself, who is still alive and fighting to be pardoned for the 1958 killings for which she was convicted. MacLean has his own opinions about Caril’s guilt, but, even as he looks into the woman’s eyes and relays this opinion, only one thing is sure; “One day she’d die . . . And with her would go the truth of the killings in the winter of 1958, if she even knew the truth after all this time.”

We pore over true and horrible tales not only to feel the thrill of their spectacle but to claim some feeling of control over evil. The sentiment is: If we can understand every detail of a violent crime, from root to execution, perhaps we can prevent it from happening to us. Modern true crime media capitalizes on this instinct, offering solvable narratives, tidy whodunit endings, and even successful civilian-led investigations. Studies show that women are twice as likely as men to consume such stories to feel as if they are taking steps to avoid becoming the victims they’re learning about. It’s a comforting thought, that knowledge could save us, but, as MacLean reminds us, random crimes just cannot be controlled. “It was Charlie and Caril’s utter unpredictability,” MacLean writes of the nation’s terror when the couple was still on the loose. “The randomness of the selection brings an existential feel with it. You died for no reason. Therefore, you lived for no reason.” He does not go on to rebut this “existential feel,” to point out some grand purpose that was there all along; he lets that statement stand alone, straightforward, uncomfortable, and true. He did not write Starkweather to arm people with some deeper knowledge of the criminal mind to ward off future harm but to acknowledge the painstaking question we all live with—“How can you prevent something if there are no signs?”—and the painstaking answer: you can’t. If there is comfort to be taken, it is in our collective uncertainty. It is an uncertainty that we share not only with the people around us but with all people throughout history, as every single human who has ever lived on earth has been confronted by the reality of our own capacity for violence. It is scary, but it has never stopped us from pioneering on. We have and will continue to face straight into the unknown western wilderness and walk forward.

Anna Llewellyn HeadshotAnna Llewellyn is a Brooklyn-based writer and editor specializing in children’s literature and short fiction. She is currently completing a certificate in Professional Editing at the University of Chicago. Her poem “The Christmas Wish” won the University of Rochester’s Rishi Piparaiya First Place Prize for Humor Writing. Her original plays for children and adults have been produced across New York state, winning her a Yonder Window Ascending Playwright’s Prize and a nomination for the New York Theatre Festival’s Best Short in 2022. She is also a self-taught painter and illustrator.

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