Friday, April 1, 2011
It's been over two weeks since I finished Hampton Sides' true crime thriller Hellhound On His Trail, the story of the escaped convict James Earl Ray, who in 1968 killed Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis and eluded capture for about two months until apprehended in London, England by New Scotland Yard.
The thing is I've had a hard time starting this post. My goals are these.
1. Make it clear I liked the book very much.
2. Discuss several aspects of the book without giving the whole thing away.
3. Not to spend an entire day typing a blog entry as long as Dr. King's letter from a Birmingham jail.
I've gone through a lot of ideas about how to structure this. Let me list a few.
Compare and contrast with In Cold Blood. It's an obvious starting point. Like Capote's great "true crime novel", Sides follows a lot of threads. Of course he follows James Earl Ray, known for most of the book as Eric Stavro Galt, his main alias after escape from the Jefferson City penitentiary, also known as Jeff City, but he also tells the story of what King was doing before he was killed and what his organization did after the assassination. Sides also discusses the 1968 presidential run of George Wallace, the openly racist former governor of Alabama that Ray admired. But after the killer and the killed, the third main character that is never far away is the F.B.I., the agency tasked with catching the murderer of a man J. Edgar Hoover detested.
But comparing it to In Cold Blood would mean a lot of time writing about Capote's book, and like this book, if you pull on one thread, suddenly you've spent a few chapters discussing all the aspects.
The F.B.I. in war and peace. It's hard to remember just how much power J. Edgar Hoover wielded for how long a period a time now that he is gone and has become a figure openly mocked as either a latent homosexual by his defenders (if the species still exists) or a closeted practicing homosexual by his detractors, also known as right thinking Americans. For all his paranoia and other personal weaknesses, he was a tireless advocate for modern forensic science and turned the Federal Bureau of Investigation into one of the most effective law enforcement agencies in the world. Hoover hated King for two main reasons, only one of which was true. He hated King because he thought he was a communist and he hated him because he knew he was an adulterer. When Ray escaped Memphis after the murder, he was only able to do so by ditching the murder weapon and a lot of other incriminating evidence that would eventually cut through the thicket of aliases he used. He then became a federal fugitive and the case was under the jurisdiction of the F.B.I., an organization that hounded Dr. King relentlessly and hoped to send him into a depression that might turn suicidal. If the F.B.I. didn't catch the killer, there would be a large part of the public that would assume someone inside the agency did it.
Sides' book shows both sides of the Bureau, the loyalty to a paranoid getting worse with age and a modern law enforcement agency with serious pride in their often immaculate work. The case is a real whodunit and getting to the truth through all the false leads and Ray's natural abilities to avoid detection with what now feel like Stone Age forensic tools makes for fascinating reading. They had good prints very early on, but back then it meant going through a database of millions of prints by hand. When the search determined that the suspect was likely an ex-con or escaped con, that cut the database from millions to tens of thousands, but the computers of those days would be no help at all in the search.
What to do with the conspiracies: American assassinations from the 1960s and conspiracies go together like red beans and rice, but Sides was not convinced by any of the conspiracy theories he read when doing his research. Ray did have money after he escaped, enough to pay cash for a used Mustang and travel to Mexico, Los Angeles and New Orleans before he started his hunt for King, but there is no evidence he held down a job during this time. Sides posits that he could have put money away from jobs he pulled before going to jail or saved money he made selling drugs in prison. From Sides' point of view, the most likely conspirators are Ray's brothers Johnny and Jerry, both of whom also had criminal records and antipathy towards blacks. One brother visited him at Jeff City the day before the future assassin made his escape.
So those were my ideas of how to write this thing and cobbling them together helped me get through it. Let me close by saying Hellhound On His Trail is a well-paced and well-researched book, better paced than this review most certainly. As long as a reader can accept a lack of conspiracy theories in such a story, this book will be enjoyable as well as informative.