Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Reading the new Hampton Sides

The new Hampton Sides book, Hellhound on His Trail, is not only great, it compares well to his incredible Ghost Soldiers. His earlier book told a little known tale of a joint Army Ranger/Filipino guerrilla operation to liberate US servicemen from a Japanese prison camp. He took a fresh story and told it incredibly well. Hellhound on His Trail, also describes a lesser known aspect of a terrible event. His new book is about James Earl Ray, the assassin of Martin Luther King, Jr.

As the center of the book and the driver of the narrative, it is a little odd that we do not see the name James Earl Ray until page 321 of the book. In his preface, Sides alludes to Shelby Foote's belief that historians should borrow the novelist's way of writing. Sides takes that advice and writes like the very best of the crime novelists. Ray, who Sides depicts as a criminal driven by his angry racism, his shattered family life and a peculiar desire to lead others on chases, was given to creating multiple fake identities. So for the first 3/4 of the book, Sides refers to him as Eric Galt, the name Ray took after breaking out of prison.

Sides' use of novelistic technique of pacing, and building suspense makes the non-reveal of Ray's true name feel like a big reveal. Reading how the FBI manages to piece together his history and his past, I felt a bit of vicarious triumph when they found out who he really was.

The other major character, of course, is Martin Luther King, Jr, who at the start of the book is flagging and flailing, looking for a way for the Civil Rights movement to gain momentum. He is anxious to being a poor person's movement in DC, but becomes involved in a garbage worker's strike in Memphis. Sides provides enough background to show the tensions within the movement without slowing down the brisk pace of the story. We are all aware of the terrible symbolic and social impacts of King's death, so Sides focuses on the things we might forget. With mounting dread, we see him joking with friends as he prepares for a dinner, all while Ray readies his rifle. We also see his young children try to grapple with what has happened to them.

The focus here though is on Ray. I was unaware of his flight across the country and then into many more. He was under the belief that he could find ideological sympathizers who would help him join up with the Rhodesian military.

Don't look for conspiracy theories in the book. The only one of note is related to a St Louis lawyer named Sutherland who is believed to have put a bounty on King's head. Focusing on the Ray's actions leaves space for the conspiracy minded to fill in motive and assistance if desired.

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