The title of this riveting book comes from Robert Johnson’s blues song, “Hellhound on My Trail,” which is about being pursued by fate, by the law, and ultimately, death.
Hellhound on His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the International Hunt for His Assassin begins with convict #416-J absconding in a breadbox from the maximum-security Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City, becoming the first man to escape from the notorious prison in its 131 years. In the not-too-distant future, convict #416-J is going to become as infamous as the prison he escaped from.
When next we meet up with convict #416-J, he’s calling himself one Eric Galt. His dream is to become a porn director, perhaps in Los Angeles or Mexico, and he begins travelling haphazardly from country to country, before ultimately arriving in Memphis, Tennessee. There he will change the course of American history by assassinating a man who also has a dream—albeit of the purest form—Martin Luther King, Jr. The world may never remember Eric Galt, but they will surely never forget James Earl Ray. . . .
Yale-trained historian, Hampton Sides, hails from Memphis, so it’s little wonder he’s on terra firma in this compellingly absorbing book. Despite reading like a page-turning thriller, Sides is quick to inform us Hellhound on His Trail is a work of nonfiction. In his introduction, he states that: “All writers sooner or later go back to the place where they came from.”
For Sides, going back to Memphis resulted in a cathartic, soul-searching journey. His father worked for the Memphis law firm that represented Martin Luther King when he came to town on behalf of striking garbage workers. Exclusively African American, the garbage workers toiled under dreadful conditions before two of their members were crushed to death in an antiquated hydraulic truck, on February 1, 1968. Sides also tells us that as a kid, he was “always somewhat ashamed that King was killed” in his hometown.
The book is peopled with fascinating cameos of leading figures of this tumultuous time in America’s history: J. Edgar Hoover, Lyndon Johnson, Coretta Scott King, Jesse Jackson, Ramsey Clark, Ralph Abernathy, and perhaps more importantly, George Wallace whose racist discourses would be the final spark to ignite the toxic fuel swirling in Ray’s bigoted head. To call Sides meticulous would be a gross understatement. He interviewed every witness he could find, and traveled thousands of miles to relive the towns and routes of the people in this book.
The riveting narrative continues to the shattering moment of King’s assassination on the balcony of his room, 306, at Memphis’s black-owned Lorraine Motel, through to the worldwide manhunt led by the F.B.I., Ray’s almost successful attempt to escape to racist Rhodesia, and the riots that erupted throughout the United States.
The ability to be informative as well as entertaining is a rare craft. Sides manages both of these with aplomb. Hellhound on His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the International Hunt for His Assassin is a thriller, a history tome, and a true crime book all rolled into one mesmerizing and poignant read. It should be on everyone’s must-read list and shelf.