The first thing that gets you is how smart and how witless the criminal was, both at once. Prisoner 416-J — as he is initially known, and sequentially by several aliases, until he emerges near the end as his own contemptible self — managed in 1967 to pull off the first escape in the history of the maximum-security Missouri State prison. Subsequently committing a far more audacious, deadly, and despicable crime than the armed robbery he had been in for, he escaped from another maximum-security facility in Tennessee after having evaded, for a time, the widest FBI manhunt to date. It would be hardly credible in a James Bond movie. Yet he was also patently dumb — not to mention a loose cannon of a sociopath, responsible for taking the life of one of the great civil rights heroes of all time — and so the story of James Earl Ray is, from beginning to end, a profound head-slapper.
It is also, as structured by Hampton Sides, author of the well-received histories Blood and Thunder and Ghost Soldiers, a vigorously paced narrative of a murder that shocked the world, as well as a trenchant depiction of a place — Memphis, Tennessee — that even for sixties America seems bizarrely alien. The bullet from Ray’s rifle that struck Martin Luther King, Jr. as he stood on a balcony at the Lorraine Motel cut down a recklessly courageous advocate for racial equality. At the same time, it helped blast to a sudden end an ethos of almost medieval stratification in the Old South.
Memphis was not simply the place where someone famous happened to be murdered; it was a worldview. By Sides’s adroit account, this could not have happened anyplace else. Or, if it could, it would have had to have been in a town similarly cooking in the heat from the fires of acrimony that burned all over the United States in the late sixties. It would also have had to have been overtaken by the exact series of events that made the proponent of nonviolence feel the need to return to Memphis, against the wishes of his advisers, to try to keep the lid from blowing off the pot.
Many arbitrary stars need to align for an assassination to occur, and the first to blink into sight here was an otherwise local event: the exceptionally horrible deaths of two black sanitation workers in East Memphis, crushed by their faulty, antiquated truck. None of the workers — or their survivors, when it came to that — had recourse, power, compensation, or (needless to say) a union.
As Sides perceptively writes,
The “tub-toters” of the Public Works Department were little better off than sharecroppers in the Delta, which is where they and their families originally hailed from. In some ways they still lived the lives of field hands; in effect, the plantation had moved to the city… All week long, they quietly haunted the neighborhoods of Memphis, faceless and uncomplaining, a caste of untouchables. They called themselves the walking buzzards.
But they did not aim to sustain a wordless watch at the borders of the refuse pile any longer. They organized, then called a strike. The clean fabric of the city with its own plantation-era monarchy, celebrated at an annual Cotton Carnival, was starting to show stains. The heat was now building, and soon it would be fanned into flame by the placards of the striking workers, which read, “I AM A MAN.”
On March 28, 1968, King went to Memphis to lead a march of these sick and tired. It turned into a debacle, the type that King most feared: riven with angry violence. He decided to return within a week, to lead a much larger, and hopefully peaceful, demonstration. He envisioned it as a kickstart to his grandly scaled Poor People’s Campaign, planned later to descend on Washington, D.C.
Since we already know what happened within a week, the only technique left to the author who wishes to fully dramatize a tragedy — the cold stars aligning one by one, the forces moving inexorably from opposite sides of the stage to their fateful collision in the middle — is intercutting. It is highly effective. As used in Hellhound, the wayward wanderings of Ray — aka Eric Galt, aka Ramon George Sneyd, aka Harvey Lowmeyer — alternate with the more purposeful movements of King, in addition to those of what one might be tempted to consider the story’s other criminal: J. Edgar Hoover. (Sides reports that Hoover, upon learning MLK was named Time‘s “Man of the Year” for 1963, obscenely commented, “They had to dig deep in the garbage to come up with that one.”) It is but one of a few too many ironies of this vicious business that King’s sworn enemy would later become responsible for sending half his 6,000 agents on a nine-week, $2-million dollar search for his killer.
After the assassination, Ray managed to cross the border (rather easily) into Canada. Then, with the FBI a ways back on the trail, he flew to Europe, en route, or so he hoped, to armed heroism as a mercenary in Rhodesia. He was finally captured, in London, by virtue of a British detective’s hunch; for a moment, it looked as though he would get entirely away. Which is what he proceeded to do, a few months after being locked tight inside another “escape-proof” pen.
Although Hellhound on His Trail is exuberantly detailed — the author is as skilled with research as he is with muscular prose — the reader might feel nagged by one omission, a crucial one. What could possibly have motivated this small-time crook to stalk and kill a man of the stature of Martin Luther King, Jr.? To be sure, he was a racist (among those he looked up to were Hitler and George Wallace); but so were many southern whites of the time. And then you see it, not trumpeted but reading like hard, sad truth: the reason was no reason. Circumstance, only that. Ray, whose highest aspiration was to direct porn films, was the sorry product of a sordid family life with a “hundred-year history of crime and squalor and hard luck.” There was nothing like a real ideology that sent James Earl Ray disastrously into the path of an inspiring, effective, and desperately needed leader; he was intellectually incapable of that. Rather, it was pre-existing anger and hate — internal states that went free-floating into the ether of a time that was chemically favorable to them. There was unloosed anguish over the Vietnam War; there were race riots that brought up the bile of fear in white throats. It turned out to be a particularly rich period for assassination.