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Bookmarks Issue: 
47-July-Aug-2010
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A-Hellhound on His Trail.epsHistorian and journalist Hampton Sides is the author of the best-sellers Ghost Soldiers: The Epic Account of World War II's Greatest Rescue Mission (2001) and Blood and Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West ( 3.5 of 5 Stars Jan/Feb 2007). A recent PBS documentary, Road to Memphis, is based on Sides's research for Hellhound on His Trail, which takes its title from a blues song by Robert Johnson.

The Topic: The basic facts are available in any American history textbook: on April 4, 1968, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., who had traveled to Memphis, Tennessee, in support of 1,300 black sanitation workers on strike, was gunned down on the balcony adjacent to his room at the Lorraine Motel. Less well known are the movements and agenda of his killer: on April 23, 1967, Prisoner #416-J, convicted of armed robbery, escaped from the maximum-security Missouri State Penitentiary by hiding in a breadbox bound for a bakery delivery truck. In alternating chapters, Sides recounts James Earl Ray's growing obsession with the prominent civil rights leader and Dr. King's struggles to stabilize the fraying movement; Sides then shifts his focus to the FBI's massive nine-week manhunt following the tragic assassination.
Doubleday. 480 pages. $28.95. ISBN: 9780385523929

Oregonian 4.5 of 5 Stars
"I have rarely read a better work of narrative nonfiction. Even those of us who witnessed the civil rights movement and were fortunate enough to hear Martin Luther King Jr. speak, as I did, have likely forgotten much about this time period, which Sides' fine book brings brilliantly back to life." Steve Yarbrough

Dallas Morning News 4 of 5 Stars
"First, his reporting on Ray's difficult-to-unearth squalid life constitutes remarkable journalism. Second, Sides' brand of literary journalism makes the saga compulsively readable. Third, Sides' re-creation of the effort to capture Ray, which begins on Page 166 of a book topping 450 pages, provides a law-enforcement angle that is fresh." Steve Weinberg

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"The result is a taut, vibrant account that shows the synchronicity of movements as King and his colleagues plot political strategy and follow his speaking itinerary, while Ray draws ever closer in what would seem an erratic path if we didn't know, as in myth, that a tragedy foreordained lay on the road ahead. Sides' writing is trenchant on King's political aims and concerns, stuffed with sharp first-person quotations, chilling in detail and particularly haunting in evoking the confusion and pathos in the minutes following the single crack of Ray's rifle." Art Winslow

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Not many documentaries have the lean, unsparing urgency that can be found in Mr. Sides's streamlined version. ... Both Dr. King and Ray come to life in these remarkable pages, generating great suspense without surprise, thanks to readers' terrible foreknowledge of what will happen when these two cross paths." Janet Maslin

St. Petersburg Times 4 of 5 Stars
"[As] urgent a page-turner as any crime novel--a feat Sides accomplishes without sacrificing historical detail and insight. ... Sides places the King assassination in its historical context, paints memorable portraits of both killer and victim, and writes a true crime story as gripping as a fictional thriller." Colette Bancroft

USA Today 4 of 5 Stars
"Through Sides' use of novelistic pacing, details and descriptions, he creates suspense that will propel readers through a slice of history. ... What he does exceedingly well is cull previously published books, government documents and archives to create a ‘you are there' narrative that brings alive that devastating spring of 1968." Bob Minzesheimer

Milwaukee Jrnl Sentinel 3.5 of 5 Stars
"As Sides meticulously traces Ray's two-month flight from Memphis, King and his legacy recede into the background, replaced by a police procedural that reads like a cross between Dan Brown and Lee Child. As with junk food, these late chapters in Hellhound taste great going down, but eventually you start asking yourself why you're still eating when you're not even hungry." Mike Fischer

Critical Summary

While he breaks no new ground, Sides succeeds in bringing these two contradictory men and their troubled era vividly to life. Meticulously researched and compulsively readable, Hellhound "reads like nothing so much as a novel" (Oregonian), and Sides's sharp historical focus, forceful prose, evocative details, and short, crisp chapters create a sense of urgency and suspense worthy of any top-notch crime novel. Sides does not presume to understand Ray's motives, and he only briefly discusses the attendant conspiracy theories. However, critics stressed the timeliness of Sides's exceptional new book: "Although King's assassination occurred more than four decades ago, some of the forces that drove it are disturbingly familiar in this era of vehemently antagonistic politics" (St. Petersburg Times).

Supplemental Reading

A-Parting the Waters.epsParting the Waters America in the King Years 1954–63 | Taylor Branch (1987): Award Star Pulitzer Prize, National Book Critics Circle Award. The first book in the America in the King Years trilogy, Parting the Waters serves not only as a biography of the great leader but also as a comprehensive account of the social, cultural, and economic landscape that gave birth to the civil rights movement.