Review: 'Hell Hound' traces last days of Martin Luther King Jr.
By Janet Maslin
In writing "Hellhound on His Trail," historian Hampton Sides has
undertaken a hugely risky proposition. He has pieced together a
viscerally dramatic account of the last days of the Rev. Martin
Luther King Jr. and intercut King's story with the maneuverings of
James Earl Ray, the man tried and convicted as his assassin.
The potential for exploitation is immense, but Sides' objectives are
entirely different from those of a novelist like James Ellroy, even
if Ray's tastes for strip joints, Brylcreem, aliases, guns and cheap
motels are part of the story. Sides (whose previous books include
"Ghost Soldiers" and "Blood and Thunder") writes in forceful,
dignified, obscenity-free language and creates the momentum of a
tightly constructed nonfiction film. His book, which takes its title
from the Robert Johnson blues song, arrives in conjunction with
"Roads to Memphis," a documentary to be broadcast on PBS Monday.
Not many documentaries have the lean, unsparing urgency that can be
found in Sides' streamlined version. Remarkably, he has embroidered
the facts without losing a sense of veracity. He augments the truth,
but does it responsibly. He skirts certain issues, like the question
of whether or not Ray acted alone, without losing his sharp focus.
And he brings to life the story of King's last days without bogging
it down in too many small particulars. Both King and Ray are fully
three-dimensional in these remarkable pages, generating great
suspense without surprise, thanks to the readers' terrible
foreknowledge of what will happen when these two cross paths.
In order to achieve such verisimilitude, Sides has drawn on a wide
spectrum of sources. Some, like David Halberstam, are unimpeachable.
Others, like the members of King's inner circle who wrote memoirs
about the assassination, are more self-conscious in their efforts to
shape history. And some have been all but ignored in mainstream
accounts of the assassination. In the furor that surrounded the
shooting and focused all attention on the event itself, some
ancillary figures were either hidden or overlooked.
But Sides draws on the recollections of Georgia Davis, the Kentucky
state senator and King's illicit companion, who says she was with him
on the last night of his life. He includes the fact that Loree
Bailey, one of the white owners of the Lorraine Motel, where King was
shot, collapsed and died in the immediate aftermath of the shooting.
He reminds readers of the terrible grief endured by the King family,
not only at this moment but six years later when Alberta King, King's
mother, was gunned down while playing a church organ. As for Ray's
own version of events, Sides takes even that into account. "As they
say, a busted watch tells the truth twice a day," he writes.
Mostly "Hellhound on His Trail" is a tight, two-man story, cutting
back and forth between King and Ray, a shady figure who, in 1968, was
calling himself Eric Starvo Galt. (The last name perhaps comes from
John Galt, the heroic figure in Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged." Sides
says he thinks that the middle name comes from a James Bond character.)
Sides begins by describing Galt's 1967 escape from prison in
Jefferson City, Mo.; he managed to hide inside a box filled with
loaves of prison-baked bread. Beyond writing that "the kitchen was
redolent with the tang of yeast," Sides goes mercifully easy on the
made-up particulars, preferring to take a cool, clinical view of Galt
and his subsequent travels. Having thus dodged the remaining 18 years
of his armed robbery sentence, he wandered to Mexico, where he
typically managed to make himself barely noticeable. He was
remembered as "a fidgety gringo who wore shades and mumbled when he spoke."
Galt drifted to Los Angeles and graduated from bartending school. He
took a correspondence course in locksmithing and worked as a
volunteer for the presidential campaign of George Wallace, whose
incendiary speeches and claims that a "whole heap of folks in this
country feel the same way I do" are enough to give the hate speech in
"Hellhound on His Trail" a startlingly contemporary aspect. Then the
book, without presuming to explain Galt's inner workings, follows him
east toward Memphis, Tenn., where he knew King could be found.
"On this night, the Leader was full of charity," Sides writes about a
generous gesture made by King to the Rev. Jesse Jackson moments
before the shooting. "He zestfully tugged at his coat lapels, as was
his habit when he felt confident and ready for the world. He was
clean shaven, sweet smelling and dressed to the nines. He looked at
Jackson and flashed a broad smile." And he was within the gun sights
of Galt, who had positioned himself at a window above in the filthy
communal bathtub of a rooming house behind the Lorraine Motel.
"Hey, that sounded like a shot," one of the rooming house's denizens
said soon afterward. "It was," Galt replied as he hastily escaped,
according to the FBI's subsequent investigation.
"Hellhound on his Trail" makes spellbinding use of such blunt
simplicity. And it winds up sounding lifelike and authoritative, if
not comprehensive. Who sent Ray on this mission? Sides doesn't know.
How did Jackson wind up inaccurately telling television reporters
that he was the last person to whom King spoke? Sides addresses this
question but doesn't harp on it. He doesn't have to.
Sides was a 6-year-old in Memphis when King was shot. His main
objective in this bold, dynamic, unusually vivid book is to bring an
adult's perspective to events that he could neither fathom nor forget.
New look at King assassination hard to put down
By MIKE HOUSEHOLDER, Associated Press Writer
Tuesday, April 27, 2010
"Hellhound on His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King, Jr. and
the International Manhunt for His Assassin" (Doubleday, 459 pages,
$28.95), by Hampton Sides: Nonfiction doesn't have to be a rote
regurgitation of established truths.
In fact, the best works in this genre are the ones that locate the
dramatic within the known.
And no one does it better than Hampton Sides.
The author, who has made an art form out of what Truman Capote called
the "journalistic novel," is back at it with the
impossible-to-put-down "Hellhound on His Trail: The Stalking of
Martin Luther King, Jr. and the International Manhunt for His Assassin."
To say "Hellhound" is thoroughly researched is a serious understatement.
The book's endnotes and bibliography total more than 50 pages, and
Sides says the work "nearly gave me an aneurysm."
But the richness of detail gathered from all kinds of sources, from
interviews and autopsy reports to archival news footage and FBI files
really makes the story.
Many of us know the basics: King, in Memphis, Tenn., to lend his
support for a sanitation workers' strike, was cut down by a sniper's
bullet while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in April
1968. An escaped convict named James Earl Ray took up residence in a
flophouse across the street from the Lorraine and from that location
fired the shot that ended King's life and sparked riots in cities
across the nation.
Sides' truthful tale starts a year earlier with Ray busting out of
the Missouri State Penitentiary at Jefferson City and tracks his
every movement until that fateful day in Memphis.
Ray bums around Mexico, then Los Angeles where he volunteers with
the presidential campaign of ardent segregationist George Wallace
before heading to the Southern states. There, he purchases the murder
weapon and eventually makes his way to Memphis.
That's when the book switches focus.
While the first half is devoted to Ray stalking King, the second is
all about how the FBI and other law enforcement agencies, including
Scotland Yard, stopped at nothing to track down King's killer.
Sides also points out how FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, despite being
no fan of King's, still ordered the full weight of the agency behind
bringing Ray to justice.
"Hellhound on His Trail" is a masterful work of narrative nonfiction,
one that benefits from its author's considerable talent as both a
researcher and a writer.
And as a result of his efforts, we not only have a greater
understanding of King and Ray, but also a book that is every bit as
good as any of the fiction thrillers being written these days.
'Hellhound' doggedly pursues the story of MLK's murder
By Bob Minzesheimer
Magazines and newspapers have a name "tick-tock" for the kind of
story that re-creates an event or decision as if it's unfolding all over again.
Hampton Sides' compelling Hellhound on His Trail: The Stalking of
Martin Luther King Jr. and the International Hunt for His Assassin is
an extended tick-tock that reads like a tragic novel.
Readers will know what's going to happen long before the civil rights
leader is shot in Memphis on page 165 and long before his assassin,
James Earl Ray, is arrested two months later in London on page 366.
Yet, through Sides' use of novelistic pacing, details and
descriptions, he creates suspense that will propel readers through a
slice of history.
That said, he doesn't break any new ground. What he does exceedingly
well is cull previously published books, government documents and
archives to create a "you are there" narrative that brings alive that
devastating spring of 1968.
He does so with conjecture when the facts fail to speak for
themselves. His sentences are often qualified with "probably," "in
all likelihood" and "He must have felt ..."
Conspiracy theorists will be disappointed. Sides piles on the
evidence against Ray, who stalked King in Selma, Ala., two weeks
before the murder on April 4, 1968.
The book acknowledges but doesn't dwell on lingering questions about
whether Ray had help, especially in escaping to Canada, then England,
hoping to find a safe refuge amid white supremacists in Rhodesia.
Sides, who will appear on a related public television documentary,
Road to Memphis, on May 3 (check local listings), is even-handed when
it comes to the FBI's role.
He describes how the agency, under J. Edgar Hoover, tried to smear
King and may even have encouraged him to commit suicide. But its
dogged pursuit of King's killer, Sides writes, was "one of the FBI's
His portrait of King leading up to his assassination is complex:
heroic but self-doubting, harassed by the FBI, challenged by violent
black militants and finding solace in mistresses. But all of that has
been documented before by other writers.
Ray, a "canny hustler" and petty criminal who escaped from a Missouri
prison in 1967 the book's dramatic opening scene is more of a
challenge. Sides vividly describes Ray's "radar for sleaze" and what
he did; he cannot fully explain why Ray did it.
In the end, 12 years after his death in a Tennessee prison, Ray
remains an "enigmatic piece of work," Sides writes. "He took pleasure
in other people's bafflement. Behind his clouds of squid ink, he
seemed to be grinning. One of Ray's many lawyers had an expression:
the only time you can tell if Ray's lying is when his lips are moving."
Most novels would sort out the lies from the truth. History is messier.
'Hellhound on His Trail': Fate brings a giant slayer to Memphis
Well-researched book portrays the path of James Earl Ray to his violent act.
BY LARRY LEBOWITZ
HELLHOUND ON HIS TRAIL: The Stalking of Martin Luther King, Jr. and
the International Manhunt for His Assassin. Hampton Sides. Doubleday.
480 pages. $20.95.
Hampton Sides' last two bestsellers, 2002's Ghost Soldiers (which won
the PEN/USA award for nonfiction) and 2006's Blood and Thunder, were
based on epic-scale events, the bold rescue of American POWs from the
Philippines during World War II and the conquest of the Old West.
Both had been well-chronicled, almost mythologized, in their day but
had largely faded from popular view, leaving Sides with a broad
canvas from which to work.
Sides has tackled a much tougher challenge with his latest nonfiction
narrative. The canvas is still large, but only 42 years have passed
since the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was cut down on the balcony in
front of room 306 at the Lorraine Motel. The celluloid images are
seared into the collective memory. Forests have been cleared
documenting the history of King, the civil rights movement, the
assassination and the urban riots that followed as well as all of the
1960s memoirs and tangential histories of LBJ, the Vietnam War, J.
Edgar Hoover and the assassinations of JFK before and RFK after MLK.
To Sides' considerable credit, he's been able to craft an
authoritative, engrossing narrative from such familiar, well-trod
terrain. Hellhound on His Trail is heavily footnoted and thoroughly
researched but executed with the pacing of a fine novel and a dash of
top-notch police procedural. Halfway through, the tragic twin story
arcs of the grand civil rights leader and the amphetamine-popping,
criminal drifter finally intersect in Sides' native Memphis.
The most compelling part of Hellhound is Sides' portrait of James
Earl Ray and his meticulous re-creation of the killer's zig-zagging
path to Memphis and beyond. Just 12 months before he put King in the
crosshairs, Ray had escaped from a maximum-security prison in
Missouri, drifting to Mexico under one of his dizzying array of aliases.
In and out of prisons most of his adult life, Ray was the product of
a messy Illinois childhood, a shapeshifting cipher who rarely left an
impression on people he encountered. (Sides drives this point home by
referring to the assassin for the first 300-plus pages by his
prisoner number or the fake names under which he was traveling. He
only becomes James Earl Ray when law enforcement finally confirms his
He was fastidious, almost vain, about his appearance, yet lived in
squalid SROs and frequented filthy Mexican whorehouses. He was
undoubtedly a racist -- his nickname for King, taped to the back of
one of his television sets was ``Martin Luther Coon.'' He so admired
Alabama Gov. George Wallace that, after his brief Mexican sojourn,
Ray briefly volunteered for the segregationist's presidential
campaign in Southern California.
During his time on the lam in L.A., Ray also got a nose job, took
cha-cha lessons, attended bartending school, inquired about
locksmithing classes, dabbled in hypnotherapy and self-help
psychology and tried to break into the porn business as a director.
After the assassination, Ray moved with shocking ease from Memphis to
Birmingham to Atlanta, where he picked up his dry cleaning and
abandoned his beloved white Mustang before catching a Greyhound to
Toronto. He hid for weeks in Canada, easily acquiring another
identity before fleeing to Europe. His poorly conceived plan was to
find safe haven as a mercenary in Ian Smith's white supremacist Rhodesia.
Ray's capture, after 65 days on the run, may have been the FBI's
finest moment. It was a monumental international achievement in a
pre-computer, pre-DNA era of shoe-leather policing and fingerprint
analysis -- and no small irony, Sides notes, given J. Edgar Hoover's
incessant red-baiting surveillance and obsessions over King's
In the months before he was slain, King, the modern prophet of
non-violent protest, told several confidants he had been having
premonitions of his violent demise. The conspiracy theorists won't
like it, but the tragedy that Sides has so ably captured is how a
giant of American life was so quickly erased -- and the course of
history irreversibly altered -- by a cretin as small as James Earl Ray.
'Hellhound' Trails King Assassin James Earl Ray
April 28, 2010
Writer Hampton Sides was a 6-year-old living in Memphis when Martin
Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968.
"I remember the tension," he says. "I remember seeing tanks, and I
remember feeling that our city was ripping apart."
Four decades later, Sides, an editor-at-large for Outside magazine
and the author of the historical books Ghost Soldiers and Blood and
Thunder, has returned to the subject of King's assassination. In his
new book, Hellhound on His Trail, Sides carefully weaves the
movements of King's assassin, James Earl Ray, with those of King, who
had traveled to Memphis to support sanitation workers on strike.
It was public knowledge, Sides says, that King was staying at the
Lorraine Hotel. Though it would be unheard of today, both King's
location and his room number had been reported in the local media.
"Not only that, but King had no security detail. He had no
bodyguards, no entourage watching out for him," Sides says. "It's
actually extraordinary how little security King had. It certainly
seems ridiculous to us now ... [but] Ray was a news junkie. It would
have been easy [for him to determine King's location]."
Ray checked into a flophouse across the street from the Lorraine. He
paid a week's rent. From the room he rented, there was no direct line
of sight onto the balcony where King was shot. Instead, he went down
the hall to a filthy communal bathroom, where he could see King's
balcony if he leaned out the window.
"After the assassination, the police found that the window in the
bathroom had been jerked up 5 inches. The screen had been jimmied
from the groove, and there was a palm print on the wall, and various
people in the flophouse heard a shot coming from that bathroom,"
Sides says. "It became pretty clear that's where the shot came from."
Within seconds, Memphis police officers were on the scene, trying to
determine who had killed King. Remarkably, Ray was able slip away.
"He ran down the stairs, took a left and turned -- and he was running
toward his car, which was a white Mustang parked on the street, when
he saw some policemen," Sides explains. "He had to do a very
impulsive thing: He ditched the weapon. Everything needed to solve
that case was in the bundle with the weapons and various other
belongings that he had there. But if he hadn't done that, he would
have been caught immediately with the weapons in his arms. So he
jumped in the car and took off."
Two months later, the FBI tracked down Ray in London, where he was
taken into custody and extradited back to the United States. How Ray
was able to evade a worldwide man hunt, and whether he had help in
doing so, are questions that linger in Sides' imagination.
"I think he had some help along the way," Sides says. "How did he
gather all of the alias [that he used during the manhunt]? There are
plenty of unanswered questions."
The Man Who Would Kill King
By Malcolm Jones | NEWSWEEK
Published Apr 29, 2010
From the magazine issue dated May 10, 2010
When the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis on
April 4, 1968, a lot of people, including numerous civil-rights
leaders and at least one congressman, assumed that a conspiracy lay
behind his death. Much of this suspicion can be blamed on the sour,
paranoid, unstable atmosphere of the late '60s, a climate that
Hampton Sides recreates brilliantly in Hellhound on His Trail, his
account of King's murder and the search for his killer. The deaths of
King and the Kennedys, the inner-city riots, the Vietnam Warthese
events combined to create a mood where anything could happen, as long
as it was tragic, and where the pronouncements of public figures were
met with no small degree of disbelief. Racist extremists were the
obvious suspects in King's death, but even the FBI did not escape
suspicion. After all, J. Edgar Hoover had been trying to smear King
for most of the decade. When a 40-year-old jailbird named James Earl
Ray was charged with King's murder, almost no one thought that was
the end of the story.
Ray seemed an especially unsatisfying suspect. A lifelong but not
especially successful crook (he had spent almost half his adult life
behind bars), he was clever enough to engineer his escapeby
squeezing himself into a breadbox going out on a delivery truckfrom
a maximum-security prison in 1967. On the other hand, he was so
witless that after shooting King, he had no escape plan more
elaborate than jumping in his car and driving away. Even so, he
managed to elude law officers for two months before he was caught.
Some of Ray's success was just dumb luck, but most of it can be
attributed to the fact that he was astonishingly forgettable.
Landlords, employers, prison guardseven his own sisterhad trouble
remembering a single memorable thing about him. As for what drove Ray
to kill King, there too the evidence comes up short. While he was
certainly a racist (he worked to get George Wallace on the ballot in
California), he had no history as aviolent criminal, and there is
nothing that explains exactly what pushed him to get in his car in
mid-March 1968 and drive from Los Angeles to Atlanta and then on to
Memphis, where, only four hours before the shooting, he rented a room
in a boardinghouse overlooking the Lorraine Motel, where King was staying.
Sides does an amazing job of finding suspense in a sadly familiar
storybut sometimes he does too well: he milks the moment Ray shoots
King, for example, with an almost pornographic voyeurism. Surely
that's a moment where technique should give way to a strictly factual
account. But that's a minor lapse in a book that elsewhere so
successfully rekindles the horror of the King assassination and the
milieu in which it happened.
Hellhound appears at the same time a documentary, Road to Memphis,
airs on the American Experience series on PBS. Sides contributed to
the documentary, but the two versions of events are noteworthy in how
they diverge. The film paints Ray more declaratively as a racist on a
deadly mission. Sides's book lives more in the shadows and dwells
profitably on the vague outlines of Ray's personality. It's not that
Sides doubts that Ray killed King, but that the author cannot uncover
any strong motive for the assassin's act. This view, ultimately, is
far more unsettling, as cause and effect fall out of balance. We like
our villains to be clear-cut. It makes sense of their heinousness,
and there is some comfort in that. But there is no explaining Ray,
and that is the most frightening thought of all.