“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.
"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.
Copyright 2010 Associated Press.