On April 4, 1968, two lives collided on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was there for the Memphis garbage strike, which had become both a crisis and an opportunity for a civil rights movement in turmoil. Across the alley was a guy no one ever seemed to notice, but who also never really fit in anywhere he went – an escaped convict going by the name Eric Starvo Galt, born James Earl Ray. This is the story of what brought both men to that point, and then of Galt's largely improvised flight from justice.
Memphis native Sides is a great storyteller, and he sets his scenes in such intimate detail, dialogue and even characters' thoughts included, that Hellhound often reads more like historical fiction than nonfiction. But he's a rock-solid historian as well; all those details are meticulously sourced in 40 pages of notes, mostly from firsthand accounts – especially from Ray, who left a relative wealth of interviews and memoirs about what he did and thought at various points. And gaps and ambiguities in the historical record are duly noted without disrupting the story.
A prime example is the question of conspiracy: Was Ray part of a wider plot to kill King? Sides raises the possibility and acknowledges some of the reasons people might believe that but declines to pursue the questions as unknowable and largely tangential to the story he's telling. Even if he got money and refuge from someone (family, friends, or someone with political motives), it's clear that his actions – buying and then awkwardly disposing of the rifle, preparing his sniper's nest, trading out identities, and having a misspelled name on his passport – are so well documented, and so haphazardly human, that there's no question they're his own.
If you were trying to script a political/crime thriller, you could scarcely come up with a more compelling plot or cast of characters: the very flawed, very great civil rights leader and his inner circle in a time of crisis; Memphis, the proud Old South city struggling to drag itself into the modern era; J. Edgar Hoover and his toxic obsession with the civil rights movement; Jesse Jackson smearing King's blood on his shirt for his flight home to Chicago ....
But in the end it all comes back to Galt: He's the hellhound on the trail of King (the title comes from a Robert Johnson blues song), then becomes the one being hounded – by the most intense manhunt in law enforcement history and, even more than that, by his own profoundly anti-social demons.
Hampton Sides will appear on the Texas Book Festival panel Literature on the Lam: Famous Fugitives Sunday, Oct. 17, at 11am in the C-SPAN/Book TV Tent.
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