Last weekend I had the pleasure of seeing Hampton Sides, the author of Hellhound on His Trail, in Sante Fe at a bookseller lunch. Before the meal, I had no intention of reading Sides' account of Martin Luther King's assassination. Most nonfiction books I absorb through reviews, New Yorker pieces, NPR and dinner table conversations.
I figured Hellhound would be no different. It was probably just another magazine article extended to a full-length book. Why read 400 pages when a well-written review would give me all the nefarious details of James Earl Ray's horrendous deed? After Sides' talk, I couldn't resist dipping into the book despite my natural aversion to true crime.
Eight days and several sleep deprived nights later, I finished the book and sure am thankful that Sides convinced me to pick it up. His tale of James Earl Ray's exploits starting with his 1967 jail break and ending with his abbreviated escape 10 years later is meticulously detailed, unrelentingly suspenseful and magnificently written.
Ray emerges as one bizarre, hateful guy. In the months leading up to the assassination, he takes dance lessons, goes to bartending school, enrolls in a locksmithing correspondence course and dabbles with the idea of making pornography. In a goodwill mission, he also drives from Los Angeles to New Orleans to retrieve two children for a girlfriend. He's also a master of aliases. He picks up and drops off a half dozen names throughout his fugitive days.
Sides said in his talk that because of these aliases, he didn't refer to Ray by his true name until after page 300 of the book. I thought this was a bit gimmicky when he mentioned it, but was surprised that the sleight of hand works. First Ray is known by his prison number, then by his main pre-assassination alias of Eric Starvo Galt and, finally, as Ramon Sneyd. It isn't until the FBI sifts through these various names and learns the true identity of the killer that Sides uses Ray's name.
When Sneyd is caught in London, two months after the assassination, he firmly denies being James Earl Ray. The most humorous moment of the book is when Sneyd asks to call his brother -- Jerry Ray. He didn't see anything contradictory in this. He had operated in more than one reality for so long that it didn't occur to him that he'd basically confessed.
The final months of King's life are vividly recreated. Sides uses mostly secondary sources for these details, relying on Ralph Abernathy's 1989 memoir, And the Walls Came Tumbling Down, and Andrew Young's book on the Civil Rights movement, An Easy Burden. He gives us a powerful narrative of a leader on the run. King was running from the recriminations of the FBI (they knew he had mistresses and were perhaps goading him to kill himself), the black power movement that wanted him to move aside so the revolution could really start and, finally, the knowledge that somewhere out there a killer probably lurked.
Sides also did some primary research - traveling to several of the places Ray hid out, interviewing participants of events and diving deep into the congressional records. However, the true strength of the book is the weaving together of already existing records and facts into a coherent and tight narrative. I appreciate the narrow focus of the book. Sides sticks to Ray and the final months of King's life. He assumes the reader has at least a rudimentary knowledge of the Civil Rights movement.
Sides does a great job in answering the question of why King was gunned down in Memphis. His movements were so peripatetic in the spring of 1968 that Ray couldn't even track him down in his hometown of Atlanta. In Memphis, King got stalled for several days trying to organize a peaceful march for the striking garbage workers. He had no choice but to stick it out, because a few weeks earlier a march in Memphis had turned violent mortifying King and putting the moral currency of his whole movement in jeopardy.
The role of the FBI is truly fascinating. The agency head J. Edgar Hoover hated King. This is a widely known fact and it was known at the time especially by anyone close to King. When Ray killed King many people assumed that the FBI was involved. It was an almost impossible situation that the agency found itself in, yet they exhausted every lead, spared no expense and somehow tracked down the elusive gunman two months later.
At the luncheon, Sides spoke about how the book was structured around three chases. Ray was chasing King, the FBI was chasing King and the FBI was also chasing Ray. He professed admiration for the way the FBI conducted the investigation. "Once they started doing the job they were meant to do, they did it superbly." Sides said.
I knew I was in the grip of a powerful book when, in a bizarre way, I was almost hoping that Ray wouldn't get caught. Sides' has done such a superb job with the narrative that the reader gets swept up in Ray's point of view. We see his desperation as the FBI closes in, we feel his panic as his money starts to dry up and we understand the turmoil in his mind when the gig is up and he says, "Oh God. I feel so trapped."
Sides doesn't subscribe to any conspiracy theories. The evidence overwhelmingly points to Ray. He bought the gun, his fingerprints were on the gun, he was at the scene of the crime and he had been stalking King for weeks. Where he got his money isn't entirely known. His brother's possible involvement is an open question. At the luncheon, Sides didn't shut the door to the possibility that Ray had some form of aid, but certainly the evidence doesn't point to anything that could be called a conspiracy.
Don't make the same mistake that I usually do. Don't just read the articles and think you know the story, read Sides' book and discover an odd corner of American history.
Hellhound on His Trail will be released on April 27.
Bookstore road trip: A visit to Seminary Coop and Robie House - This summer my niece Jocelyn was in Chicago for some field training. What a great opportunity to meet up! If I were able to convince her to do a bookstore...
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