It’s April 1961. John F. Kennedy has been the President of the United States of America for less than four months with the disastrous Bay of Pigs Invasion ramping up tensions between the USA, Cuba and Soviet Russia. In Illinois the Clown, a serial killer named for the oil paint he leaves on his victims’ faces, is all over the news; four victims in four months with no apparent connection or reason. Alex Poliac, a simple engineer at a technological research centre, knows there is a connection, and has a list of names both the commie hunting FBI and the ruthless KGB want. Today Alex is burying his wife Alice, killed in a hit-and-run accident. Does her death have something to do with what Alex knows? Alice’s best friend Laura is hiding something and since her arrival two years prior Alice changed. When he confronts Laura Alex knows things aren’t right. With his life in jeopardy Alex takes his son Rob, boosts a car and heads out along Route 66 to warn the people on his list. In an America feverish with J. Edgar Hoover’s witch hunt for communist spies and sympathisers, Alex and Rob have to track down their mysterious Uncle Sasha while staying one step ahead of their pursuers.

Éric Stalner’s The Route 66 List is a tense spy thriller of sleeper agents embedded along the famous Route 66 during 1960s America. It’s well told with Stalner, both writer and artist, pacing the story well and subverting the usual espionage narrative by interesting experimentation. Not having any experience of living in rural USA in the 1960s Stalner does take some shortcuts, but they aren’t intrusive, simply adjusting for a modern readership. There is more than one cast member’s perspective to consider and the slow way he reveals plot developments prompts speculation. Could Alex be involved in his wife’s death? What does Laura know about that event herself?  

Making it a father/son road trip adds flavour, the influence of Road to Perdition apparent while the use of an unknown narrator helps set the political tone. The transition between the narration and the dialogue itself isn’t always smooth, though this is most likely due to translation differences from the original French and it does improve.

The beauty of Illinois – and what makes the story work – is Stalner’s art. Considering that he’s self-taught will make it all the more impressive. He perfectly catches that Americana style of the 1960s from the appliances to the cars and the way people dress. His scenery and settings are fabulous with Jean-Jacques Chagnaud adding lush colours that almost convincingly supply a look through a window in time. The action sequences in particular are superb, though occasionally Stalner becomes overly ambitious, crafting scenes as if he were choreographing a film. They look great but are they necessary? He’s at his best building the mood through his art, creating a palpable air of suspense whether through a car seen following Alex in the rear view mirror or someone casting a subtle nervous look over the shoulder.

Illinois is a good spy thriller by any standards and few have artwork like this. It’s a promising start that sets the tone for the next instalment in The Route 66 List 2. Missouri .