May 2010

Hampton Sides

Retracing an assassin’s trail
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Memphis historian and subculture explorer Hampton Sides was six years old on April 4, 1968, when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel by a prison escapee named James Earl Ray.

Sides remembers that his father, who worked at the Memphis law firm that represented King during his marches on behalf of the city’s striking garbage workers, came home that evening, poured himself a stiff drink and braced his family for the worst.

“He was extremely worried that the city was going to rip apart and there was going to be a race riot,” Sides recalls. “Black and white, no one knew what was going to happen next. It was fairly terrifying.” Memphis would be one of the few major American cities spared widespread rioting in the wake of the assassination, but its scars of rage and guilt have been slow to heal.

Sides brings it all back home in Hellhound on His Trail, a narrative history with the pace of a thriller and the bite of a Howlin’ Wolf blues song.

Drawing on a wealth of previously unpublished material, Sides employs an alternating narrative to build profiles of King and Ray in the months leading up to their fatal collision. King, who fears that his nonviolent movement is losing relevance, convinces his inner circle to decamp to Memphis and march in support of the largely black garbage workers. In the meantime, Ray, a small-time thief and Missouri prison fugitive with delusions of grandeur fueled by George Wallace’s racist presidential campaign, drifts back to the U.S. after hiding in Mexico, assumes the alias of Eric Galt, rents an apartment in King’s hometown of Atlanta, buys a high-caliber rifle and follows King to Memphis with intent to kill.

Employing the same storytelling prowess he displayed in Blood and Thunder and Ghost Soldiers, Sides ratchets up the tension by tracking Ray under his assumed name, a technique that enables us to suspend our feelings toward the historical figure and gain fresh insight into the mind of Eric Galt, assassin.

“I decided it was important to let Ray be whoever he is saying he is at any given point in the story,” Sides explains. “The ease with which he moved about the country and assumed these various identities is a big part of who he is, and the mystery is enhanced by that. Who is this guy with all these names? So I decided that the reader should find out it’s James Earl Ray at the point in the story where the FBI found out it was James Earl Ray. That ends up being like on page 300.”

Sides’ brick-by-brick portrait of Ray shows what madness can result from a birthright of racism, poverty and ignorance. A loner by temperament, Ray was a desultory dabbler, unwilling or unable to commit to anything—except murder.

“He was kind of an empty vessel of the culture, all these fads and trends, from bartending school to hypnosis to weird self-help books like Psycho-Cybernetics to locksmith school to dance lessons,” Sides says.

As if two larger-than-life figures were not enough, Sides also juggles a third: J. Edgar Hoover, the iconic G-man who supervised the largest manhunt in American history—a two-month, four-country search that ultimately involved 3,500 FBI agents and cost $2 million. Hoover not only loathed King, he also disdained Attorney General Ramsay Clark, his boss under President Lyndon Johnson.

“What Ramsay Clark said to me was, nothing was more important to Hoover than the reputation of the FBI, and he felt that it was at stake here because people were going to find out how much he’d been bugging and eavesdropping and smearing King,” Sides relates. “So in a paradoxical way, Hoover’s hatred of King intensified the manhunt and made it more desperate.”

The manhunt, which consumes the second half of the book, reads like a crime novel worthy of Joseph Wambaugh or Michael Connelly.

Sides studied under John Hershey (Hiroshima) at Yale and developed his love for narrative history out of the New Journalism movement of the ’60s. Would he ever consider flipping the coin and trying his hand at historical fiction?

“Honestly, whenever I read historical fiction, I have a problem,” he admits. “It’s sort of like, will the real fact please stand up? Even really good literary historical fiction like E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, I’m thinking, what about the real Houdini? How much of this is real and how much of this is in [the author’s] own mind? I just think that the real story is always more interesting.”

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Hellhound on His Trail

Hellhound on His Trail

By Hampton Sides
ISBN 9780385523929

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