Hellhound on His Trail

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Hellhound on His Trail:
The Stalking of Martin Luther King Jr. and the International Hunt for His Assassin

By Hampton Sides
Doubleday, $28.95, 459 pp.

No matter how much — or how little — you already know about James Earl Ray’s assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., you will be spellbound by Hampton Sides’ superb new book, Hellhound on His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King Jr. and the International Hunt for His Assassin.

Sides focuses on storytelling, fashioning a narrative that, like a nonfiction Day of the Jackal, is made no less fascinating or suspenseful by the fact that we know the outcome of events.

Some criticism has been leveled at Sides, in fact, for his novelistic approach — telling us, for instance, what he deduces a character must have been thinking at the time.  However, he certainly seems to have done an incredible amount of research from primary sources. If pure scholarship might suffer a bit, the reader does not, racing through the pages as quickly as any popular summer read.

And what a story and cast of characters it is.  Featured are such iconic figures as King himself, LBJ, and J. Edgar Hoover, along with a supporting cast of Jesse Jackson, Ramsey Clark, Joseph Lowery and Andrew Young. Then there is the looming, mysterious fugitive gunman lurking in the background, drifting under different names and guises, but inexorably making his way toward that fateful meeting in Memphis.

Sides opens his story with prisoner 416-J, a convicted armed robber, escaping from the Missouri State Prison. Periodically, we return to the implacable drifter as he hides out among bordellos in Mexico, joins a cult in California, and eventually returns to the South and finally decides on a sinister direction for his life.

In the meantime, Martin Luther King Jr. himself was searching for direction and trying to get back on track.  After the historic victories of the civil rights movement, King was being overshadowed by black power advocates.  With the fight against legal segregation all but won, King was beginning what he called “the Poor People’s Campaign.”

Sides’ portrait of a tired, fatalistic King near the end of his rope and transitioning from the fight for racial equality to a fight for economic equality -– aka democratic socialism -– will surprise some conservatives who forget where King was heading at the time of his assassination.

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  • tim heekin

    I agree this is a fun book but the author gives no satisfactory explanation as to how Ray financed his strange goings on. Oddly, this lack of explanation adds to the remaining mystery and intrigue about the whole affair. Clearly Ray had some help from somebody and the author volunteers that Ray's criminally active brothers were probably his helpers. Maybe but the book ends with a big, mysterious compelling unknown. A helluva movie could be made of this particularly if they don't leave out King's clintonlike proclivities.

  • USMCSniper

    Now, nearly 29 years after his father’s death, Dexter King met with James Earl Ray in a small room at the Lois DeBerry Special Needs Facility, Ray’s current home. Dexter faced Ray, and after several awkward minutes of small talk came to the question to which so many want the answer: “I just want to ask you for the record, did you kill my father?” “No I didn’t,” came Ray’s reply. And in a display of the grace and compassion for which his family has long been known, Dexter King replied, “I just want you to know that I believe you, and my family believes you, and we are going to do everything in our power to try and make sure that justice will prevail.” To this day he believes that Ray never killed his father. He probably is right.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/DavidForsmark DavidForsmark

      He is most definitely wrong.

      • USMCSniper

        Oh sure, and Ex Marine "fall-guy" Lee Harvey Oswald bought some piece of crap italian ancient bolt action garbage rifle with wierd caliber ammo through the mail order where it could be traced and he left it at the alleged scene of the crime, when he could have bought an untraceable remington or winchester 308 and ammunition with a scope at any sports department or gun shop that is a real sniper rifle and oh yes the Dallas police department found him in a movie theater in the dark less than an hour later and he gets conviently blown away by the Mafia thug Jack Ruby who was seen with him in Cuba a week earlier, and all Kennedy's wound photos and medical records dissappear from the Dallas County Hospital. Hmmm,,,, yeh sure,,oceanfront Arizona property, perpetual motion, immortals from the highlands,,, I understand.

  • guestspeaker

    And after the Robert Kennedy shooting, Jacquelyn Kennedy said 'they're killing Kennedy's!' whereupon she took her children and went to live in Europe.

    The new world people will stop at nothing to bring their plans to fruition. Remember HWB when he followed his congressional address with a soft, almost whisper, "And we will!"


  • badaboo

    This book is a novel at best , and the intention of the editorial seems to be an inference that King was a "socialist " . Everyone capabable of cognizant thought KNOWS Ray didn't act alone .If you're the type who likes to read noivels , it's probably a good book by a pretty good author , however it's fiction as far as I 'm concerned .If as an author , you add , what you think people were to have been thinking as far as real characters in the book , then yea you got a good book to make a fiction movie , and nothing else . And I think historians may have more than" quibbles" , and not for methodology .

  • badaboo

    So what's your point here Forsmark ? Just hawking a good novel ? Or trying to make a political point regarding King , with , of course 2020 hindsight .

  • badaboo

    Sides "methodology " makes the book a novel , not to be confused with non-fiction .And just by your description , I think Historians would have more than just "quibbles " .

  • badaboo

    So , from where I'm sitting , it's Forsmark opining on a book which contains Sides 'opining .

  • badaboo

    Oh an Mr.Forsmark , King was much more than "somewhat a nemesis " to Hoover . Hoover was obssesed with bringing King down , but that is not to say Hoover had anything to do with the assassination .And anyone who knew Hoover whether leftwing or rightwing , that thought just may have crossed their mind .

  • badaboo

    USMCsniper , you're dead on , but we'll never know , all involved are most likely dead by now or close to it . And as for King , Earl Ray did not act alone , and in fact may have not been the assasin . If everyone was so sure of that , then they wouldn't have been asking him that question until he died .

  • badaboo

    glad this is off the "front page " …shouldn't have been there to start with . people are trashing Jefferson and even Lincoln these days ….and this atleast in it's PURPOSE is no different .
    Forsmark …. most people haven't just "fallen out of a christmas tree " . your editorial belongs on a book review blog , when you put it up here , it's rather transparent as to your motives .