Sunday, July 11, 2010

HELLHOUND ON HIS TRAIL - The Stalking of MLK



The Stalking of Martin Luther King Jr.

This book was hard for me to put down. I devoured half of it in almost one sitting, right up to the point when Galt, a.k.a., James Earl Ray, had finally shot MLK.

Borrowing from the song title "Hellhounds on My Trail" - by Robert Johnson, (Blues singer, 1911-1938) this book serves as a good example of what it takes for readers to be spellbound by so many elements of a particular story. First of all, I was only ten years old when this happened, so at the time it had made an indelible impression on me, till this day, I might add.

I remember seeing a lot of it unfold on television (when color television itself was in its infancy) right before my curious eyes and ears, not unlike the JKF assassination in 1963, the slaying of a Muslim activist by the name of Malcolm X, or the Bobby Kennedy assassination only months after the MLK tragedy. It's no wonder I'm so fixated with these kinds of stories. I've lived through so many of them and I have always been curious about the details of each of these crimes.

First, let me say that if you have a sensitive stomach to bloody details, beware because this account is quite graphic, although it is not overtly presented just for the sake of dramatization. Hampton Sides, at least as far as I can tell from this story, has a very matter-of-fact writing style and by no means seems to embellish this story. He has authored several other good books as well.

What really appeals to me about this book though, is how the author peppers his narrative with unrelated events such as the whereabouts of Elvis Presley, the goings on in the world of music in Nashville, or how Pete Townsend was putting the finishing touches on his song about a pinball wizard, all this intersecting during this precarious time in American history. All those gregarious details adding plenty of texture and a peculiar interest that almost seems out of place if it were not for their almost comic convergence in this unsettling timeline.

It's almost as if we are watching a film reel countdown of the year 1968 in slow motion, where the main event is blurred by so many asides. If not for its lack of artistry, one might easily construe this technique with a bastardization of the plot through-line. Instead, Sides manages to succeed by delineating historical facts, however unrelated, in a most satisfying, if not perverse literary mash-up all his own.

But this is non-fiction, after all, and regardless of sensationalized fictive elements, if any, at the beginning of this story, without another alternative, Sides ends this thriller just as uneventful as the understated events that took place in real life back in June of 1968.

MLK's assassin was caught without incident or struggle (no spoilers here) in London after a daring escape from a seedy Memphis motel in early April of that same year after traversing his way through Canada, supposedly on his way to Rhodesia.

I think the most poignant aspect of this book is its honesty and its unrelenting attention to detail, much of which Sides had insiders help with by way of a retired Memphis detective that was working on this case. Sides also says that he went on his own journey around the world, as he literally traced James Earl Ray's fidgety footsteps that eventually led to this crime.

That kind of dedication to story is commendable to say the least and without question adds a richness and a resounding depth to the narrative that might have otherwise been obscured by second-hand facts.

Some may argue that this version of the MLK assassination only helps raise more questions than provide answers to an already suspicious set of circumstances surrounding Rays final prison break, which led him to commit this murder. Was it a conspiracy or not? Did Ray in fact have help escaping the ultimate security penitentiary in Missouri, and was he paid to silence Dr. King?

James Earl Ray had once said that he would take many secrets to his grave regarding this crime, and he probably did. Then again, he was also known as a pathological liar.

Whatever your point of view, Sides brilliantly succeeds in presenting this killer just as he was. A troubled, delusional man, a racist, and a cold-blooded killer.

Nothing more or nothing else should do.


*********************

I'm working on reading Karl Marlantes epic about his Vietnam experience, "Matterhorn," so this review will be forthcoming in several months since my reading time is short these days. What attracted me to this story, aside from its gripping narrative, is its author, and how he developed this story over the course of 30 years. You gotta love a behind-the-scenes story like that. Stay tuned.

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