Having read a number of Martin Luther King biographies, including the three-part biography from Taylor Branch and two tightly researched books by David Garrow, I was always frustrated by the lack of information these books provided on King's killer James Earl Ray. It was as though the authors didn't want to spend any time on the "ten-cent white boy (who) could develop a plan to kill a million-dollar black man." For that reason I was eager to read Hellhound on His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King Jr. and the International Hunt for His Assassin a new book by Hampton Sides.
Sides takes a true crime approach to his subject as we follow Ray from his Missouri Prison escape in 1967 to his time spent in Mexico, Los Angeles, and eventually Memphis. Ray, who is not even identified by name until the last line of the 40th chapter, came from a long line of losers, criminals, and drug addicts and Ray's time in Los Angeles and Memphis comes across more like a James Ellroy novel than a history book.
Sides interweaves a number of stories here. Ray of course, but also Martin Luther King and his effort to organize garbage workers in Memphis and publicize his Poor People's campaign in Washington, DC. In addition, J. Edgar Hoover's FBI plays a large part in the story too. First as King's harasser, then after the assassination, engaged in a full-throated effort to solve the crime and apprehend Ray. Having read a number of King biographies, the sections on MLK's efforts were not as interesting nor broke any new ground.
The main reason to read this book, however, is James Earl Ray. At times exceedingly crafty (not only did he escape a small prison in Missouri, in 1977 he escaped for nearly a week from a maximum security prison), other times Ray is outlandishly stupid (once caught he claims he's not James Earl Ray but asks to speak with his brother John Ray). Ray is skeevy to the extreme as Sides states that "No matter where he was in the world, his radar for sleaze remained remarkably acute." After his escape from prison in 1967, Ray hangs out in flophouses, engages in low level drug deals and robberies, associates with prostitutes and strippers while talking correspondence courses in bartending and locksmithing.
Sides is at his best when describing Ray's efforts in the 24 hours before and after King's assassination. Sides provides a literal minute-by-minute account of King's and Ray's movements up to and past the time the bullet enters Kings jaw, cuts through his throat, and ends up lodged in his shoulder blade. What is amazing is that Ray literally spent eight hours in Memphis and just happens to find a flophouse that has a bathroom overlooking the balcony of the Lorraine Motel.
After the assassination, the FBI takes center stage as they use all the investigative powers at their disposal to identify and track James Earl Ray. (Helped immensely by Ray's leaving the rifle and other personal belongings behind as he was worried he'd be seen by the local cops). Ray was able to get into Canada, create another identity and go to England on a fake passport, all with the intent of getting to then racist Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) where Ray thought he'd be welcomed as a hero. An attentive Scotland Yard detective noticed Ray trying to get on a plane to Brussels and immediately detained him.
Although ostensibly a book about an historic event, Sides creates a true crime narrative that at times is literally a thrilling page turner. If at all unclear about this pivotal moment in our nation's history I fully recommend Hellhound on His Trail.