Reviewed by Steve Yarbrough
At some point during the summer of 1968, my father, who at that time was running a cotton gin in the Mississippi Delta, had to go to Memphis to pick up some parts from the Continental Gin Co.'s warehouse. As best he and I can recall, it stood somewhere on Poplar Street, just a short distance away from the Criminal Courts Building, where James Earl Ray was being held as he awaited trial for the murder of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. I have never forgotten the impression that building made on me. It looked like a fortress, with heavy steel plates covering all the windows. According to Hampton Sides, in his magnificent new book Hellhound on His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King Jr. and the International Hunt for His Assassin, those plates were a quarter-inch thick "and reportedly strong enough to resist small-arms artillery."
Sides' book, meticulously researched, reads like nothing so much as a novel, and no wonder. In the preface, he tells us of meeting Shelby Foote, who seems to have served as a model. Indeed, Sides is able to conjure the same sense of immediacy that Foote evokes throughout his majestic three-volume history of the Civil War. We learn, for instance, that on the night King was assassinated, he was planning to eat dinner at the home of his friends Billy and Gwen Kyles, where the menu would have included " ... roast beef, candied yams, pig's feet, neck bones, chitlins, turnip greens, corn pone." The entire narrative is saturated with these kinds of minute details.
After a prologue that describes the April 1967 escape of Prisoner #416-J from the Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City -- where he had served seven years on the heels of a four-year sentence at Leavenworth -- the narrative follows the escapee, who, of course, is Ray, to Puerto Vallarta. There, he reconstitutes himself as Eric Starvo Galt, spends a lot of time in "cathouses" and passes himself off as "an author, a journalist, a photographer, a filmmaker." His sojourn in Puerto Vallarta comes to a close shortly after a revealing encounter in an upscale brothel: drunk and off-balance, an African American man makes the mistake of touching a woman at Galt's table, whereupon Galt/Ray threatens to kill him and is almost put to the test. This is the first indication the reader gets that Ray harbors such intense hatred of black people, and it makes a powerful impression.
Up until the murder of King -- at which point the narrative shifts gears, focusing on Ray's attempt to escape and the FBI's efforts to find him -- Sides' tactic is to juxtapose King's activities with those of his killer. As a narrative strategy this works beautifully, creating plenty of plain old-fashioned suspense that makes the reader's heart pound, even though the tragic outcome is known in advance. Additionally, it invites comparison. King and Ray were both men on a mission. The former wanted to bring about equality for African Americans and was about to embark on his Poor People's Campaign, whereas the latter wanted to commit a murder that he was convinced many white people would secretly -- or perhaps not so secretly -- applaud. In fact, as Sides tells us, Ray was confident that if George Wallace, then a presidential candidate, got elected, he had no reason to fear getting caught, because Wallace "would grant him a full pardon after a short prison sentence."
I have rarely read a better work of narrative nonfiction. Even those of us who witnessed the civil rights movement and were fortunate enough to hear Martin Luther King Jr. speak, as I did, have likely forgotten much about this time period, which Sides' fine book brings brilliantly back to life. Following King's murder, many American cities exploded as the anger and rage of a denied minority reached critical mass. One of the most ominous passages in the book describes what Attorney General Ramsey Clark saw from his plane as he flew back into Washington the evening after the murder. "Smoke engulfed all of downtown and the Mall. Only the great illuminated dome of the Capitol and the sharp white obelisk of the Washington Monument punctured the seething blankets. Clark could see infernos blazing up around U and Fourteenth Streets, but also within a few blocks of his own office at the Justice Department ... ."
Among other things, this memorable book serves as a chilling reminder that a single loser with his finger on the trigger and mayhem in his heart can bring an entire nation to its knees.
Books mentioned in this post