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And while this is no personal expose, Sides is frank and matter-of-fact about King’s well-known failings in his personal life. While this story is well-known, it’s still a little disconcerting to see how his inner circle of “reverends” (all supposedly friends with wife Coretta) did far more than turn a blind eye to King’s infidelities; they actually were his active collaborators. In fact, the mistress who stayed at the Memphis hotel with King the night before he was shot was so comfortable in their company that she instinctively got into the ambulance with King as he was about to be rushed to the hospital.
One thing for sure, this won’t be Jesse Jackson’s favorite book on the assassination. Sides pulls no punches on how Jackson, with callous aforethought, literally “waved the bloody shirt” to get attention and claim a prominent role in events that he didn’t deserve.
But Jackson wasn’t the only one who spent more time making political hay than mourning a friend. The funeral was an event that made the Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone memorial of a few years ago look like a small gathering of grieving close friends, and a smaller moment provided by Andrew Young summed it up in telling fashion.
When FBI agent Cartha “Deke” DeLoach came to King’s inner circle to assure them that every possible resource was being harnessed to find the killer, Young was all but disinterested. “We aren’t so much concerned with who killed Martin as with what killed him,” he told a surprised DeLoach.
The largest manhunt in the history of American law enforcement came to be directed by Ramsey Clark, a left-wing Attorney General whose liberal president was suspicious of him and whose loathing of FBI Director Hoover was returned in spades. They were hunting a killer whose target had been somewhat of a nemesis for Hoover, and the victims’ closest colleagues and witnesses to the event were all but hoping it would be exposed that the FBI somehow had been involved. You can’t make this stuff up, and Sides takes full advantage of the drama.
As for the assassin, James Earl Ray remains still enigmatic after all these years. Sides delivers a chilling portrait of a sociopathic criminal drifter looking for meaning in his life. but the essence of Ray remains impenetrable. In his flight from justice, Ray first hid the most sought-after car in the U.S. in plain sight in Atlanta, not far off the King funeral procession route. He then fled to Canada and London, all the while harboring the illusion he would make a good mercenary in Rhodesia.
Ironically, a liberal prohibition against the British press’ publishing pictures of mere “suspects” helped Ray avoid capture for quite a while in London — until a dogged effort of sheer man hours and old-fashioned police work of pawing through passport records finally uncovered the lead that led to Ray’s arrest.
While debunking conspiracy theories is not the purpose of the book, they make little sense when one reads the book’s detailed narrative. If Ray had outside help or a plan for escape, the author concludes, there’s no way he would have done it this way.
Hellhound on His Trail is great reporting and great writing. This is no surprise from the author of Ghost Soldiers (the basis for the movie The Great Raid) and Blood and Thunder, which ingeniously personalized the story of westward expansion by telling it through the eyes of Kit Carson. Whatever quibbles historians may have with Sides’ methodology, this is a gripping and essential accounting of one of the 20th Century’s signature events.
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