New history focuses on elusive assassin James Earl Ray

Nonfiction: "Hellhound on his Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King Jr. and the International Hunt for his Assassin," by Hampton Sides. Doubleday, $28.95.

In an era when biographers and historians write over and over about the same presidents, elections, wars and catastrophes, it seems counterproductive to revisit one of the most sensational crimes of the 20th century -- the assassination April 4, 1968, of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

In fact, the story of his killer, James Earl Ray, emerged every few decades and finally seemed to fade when he died in 1998. It was retold in several books. Now comes one by Hampton Sides about Ray and the crime, offering a fresh perspective while deftly skirting some of the controversy about the murder that has dogged the case for more than 40 years.

"Hellhound on His Trail" chronicles the year leading up to the crime and the two months that followed, based narrowly on the activities and travels of Ray. Mr. Sides' book reads like fiction, even though its tone is for the most part measured and low-key.

Ray was somewhat of an escape artist. In 1967, he fled the Missouri State Penitentiary, where he was doing time for armed robbery. And his escape sounds like something out of a Dan Brown novel:

He hid in a fetal position in a 4-foot-by-3-foot-by-3-foot box loaded with fresh bread that was transferred out of state by truck from the prison bakery. After he jumped off the truck, he lived undetected for a year, until he became a suspect in the King killing.

What makes this book so absorbing and sets it apart from the others about the slaying, is the author's use of perspective. From the start, Mr. Sides crafts the narrative based primarily on Ray's actions and travels with details that are taken from interviews with those who crossed paths with the killer.

Until the manhunt for Rev. King's killer begins more than halfway through the book, we never meet the man named James Earl Ray. Instead we meet his various aliases -- Eric Galt, Ramon George Sneyd and a few others -- because that's who he was during various portions of the narrative.

Mr. Sides does not attempt to describe what the protagonist is thinking, nor does he ascribe specific motive to his actions. We know Ray is on a mission, but we do not know exactly why, because he never reveals that goal to anyone during the journey -- or at least no one who has talked.

This technique works, allowing the author to avoid what has been one of the most controversial aspects of the King murder -- whether Ray acted alone.

The man he portrays is intriguing. A petty criminal from a poor white family, the young Ray was nice-looking, neatly dressed and soft-spoken. It was these qualities, Mr. Sides implies, that allowed him to avoid detection.

But as we get closer to "Galt," as he is known throughout most of the book, another side emerges. Mr. Sides describes in excruciating and pathetic detail how Galt the loner could be successful at making small talk, but that he had a hair-trigger temper, was small-minded and was a virulent racist -- traits he couldn't hide for very long.

Ray was crafty, but his capture within two months after the crime was committed was a model of international law enforcement efficiency; the FBI, Scotland Yard and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police officials wasted no time in tracking him down. He was arrested at Britain's Heathrow Airport on his way to what was then Rhodesia.

While the author alternates episodes chronicling the movements of the assassin with the activities of Rev. King and his team of activists (including, among others, Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young and Jesse Jackson), the civil rights leader is, ultimately, a peripheral character in the book.

To his credit, though, the author doesn't sugarcoat his portrayal of the slain civil rights leader. For instance, Rev. King, a notorious philanderer, spent most of the last night of his life in Memphis in the hotel room of a woman who wasn't his wife, Kentucky state Sen. Georgia Davis.

And Mr. Sides seems to indicate that the wheels were coming off the movement itself as Rev. King was growing increasingly mercurial and distracted, and seemed to be developing an obsession with his own mortality.

Mr. Sides doesn't attempt to deduce what, specifically, was going on in Ray's mind when he decided to stalk and ultimately kill Rev. King.

But after he describes his tragic upbringing in a cycle of poverty and crime, Mr. Sides does make an ironic observation:

Despite his hatred for Rev. King and others in the civil rights movement, the killer and his family were the very people who would benefit from the work of Rev. King, who devoted his life to the disenfranchised and marginalized in this country.

Clearly James Earl Ray didn't see it that way.

Marilyn Greenwald is a professor of journalism at Ohio University. First Published May 16, 2010 4:00 AM


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