Hell of a Good Read (Hellhound On His Trail by Hampton Sides)
Hampton Sides knows how to write gripping historical nonfiction, and it shows again in “Hellhound On His Trail,” his account of Martin Luther King’s murderer, James Earl Ray. (He also wrote “In the Kingdom of Ice,” an excellent story of Arctic survival in the 19th century.)
The story begins in a Jefferson City, Missouri jail cell and reaches as far away as Portugal. Sides gathers extensive research, details from FBI reports, newspapers, and interviews, even from those who met the murderer in the hallways of various hotels. All this is pieced together into a suspenseful narrative, providing a reasonable description of Ray’s movements, strategies, and racism.
Hampton Sides describes family members who make the reader nod and think – yeah, they were all screwed up. While he gives plenty of clues, alignment with George Wallace campaign, desire for recognition, weird dressing habits, don’t look for deep psychological analysis. He seems more interested in what happened, arranging it in a way that leaves questions of real motives for your assumptions, for other writers, and trained psychoanalysts. Maybe we will never know why any one individual commits racist assassinations, mass murder, and other atrocities. (Why anyone would eat fried Twinkies for that matter? Why would anyone want to eat a Twinkie, fried or otherwise?)
Sides writes so well that you feel as if you are in a shabby hotel, drinking powdered milk and eating pastry. You feel like you are in a filthy space searching for the cleanest shot, the most efficient way to murder someone, in this case an inspirational, transcendent human being like Martin Luther King.
Jeffrey Penn May, author of Roobala Take Me Home, Where the River Splits, Cynthia and the Blue Cat’s Last Meow, No Teacher Left Standing, Eight Billion Steps: My Impossible Quest for Cancer Comedy, and more.