Shortly after James Earl Ray shot and killed Martin Luther King, Ray’s father George confided to a reporter that he deemed James Earl the most ambitious of his nine children. “He had a hell of a lot of drive,” George explained. James Earl didn’t have many options in life. Two of his brothers were convicted felons. Another drowned in a car crash, while one sister burned herself alive and another became a prostitute. The youngest siblings were given up for adoption. When FBI agents showed up at the home of brother John, John asked the feds why they were making such a fuss: “He only killed a nigger,” he said. George spoke less cynically about the crime—but more philisophically. “Life don’t amount to a shit anyway. [James Earl] tried to go too far too fast.”
Hampton Sides, an editor-at-large with Outside magazine, details just how far and fast Ray’s ambitions would take him in an excellent new book, Hellhound on his Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King Jr and the International Hunt for his Assassin. This is narrative non-fiction at its best. The tale begins in April 1967, with Ray breaking out of the Missouri State Penitentiary by stashing himself in the back of a bread truck. On the outside, Ray promptly assumes a new identity—one of four he adopts over the course of the book—and moves to California, where he campaigns of behalf of George Wallace.
In February 1968, Ray migrates back east—apparently with plans to kill King. The next month, King travels to Memphis in support of the city’s striking garbage workers. His most trusted associate, Ralph Abernathy, had attempted to dissuade him making the trip. (Abernathy thought the excursion would distract from the upcoming march on Washington, the centerpiece of King’s Poor People’s Campaign.) When King finally arrives in Memphis on March 28, it is the first time that he has stepped foot in the city since honoring another fallen civil rights leader, James Meredith, who was shot there two years earlier.
Sides’s prose embodies a filmmaker’s penchant for scene and timing as the story flits between King preparing to march on Memphis again (the March 28 event turned violent and was broken up; King then announces that he’ll come back and do it right), Ray shopping for his murder weapon at sporting goods stores, and the FBI cooking up new ways to slander and malign King. Superior historical nonfiction like this is often adapted for the big screen; Hellhound on his Trail unfolds as if you’re watching the film already. (Universal Pictures owns the rights.) Each chapter has its own dramatic arc, while the action peaks during the assassination and the ensuing chase. But Sides nonetheless pauses enough to allow the story to breathe by adding short contextual snippets about, for instance, the Lorraine Motel, Memphis’s Beale Street, and the panic in Washington following the assassination. Sides’s style, in fact, is more gaffer than director; he raises the curtain, gives readers a peek at a historical moment, then drops the curtain and moves onto another scene.
Unfortunately, he betrays this tendency in his characterizations of Ray. Sides comes off sounding bitter and even somewhat petty, primarily as a result of word choice that borrows from the crass world that Ray inhabited. Ray’s grooming habits are depicted as “preening,” his spending habits classified as those of a “cheapskate,” and his drink choice named “horse-piss beer.” Whether or not Sides intended it, such descriptions come off sounding like class prejudice.
Readers would have gained the impression Sides wanted to convey about Ray without the condescending comments. Instead, the first half of the book makes Ray out to be a far less interesting character than he was. Near the end, when Sides reveals details about Ray through lens of the FBI’s investigation, we find a far more interesting, dynamic, and, yes, sleazy antagonist than Sides’s own editorializing could achieve. We learn, for example, more about Ray’s dreams of becoming a pornographic filmmaker, his attempts to learn the cha cha and foxtrot at a Long Beach dance studio, and his brief education at the International School of Bartending in Los Angeles. Hellhound on his Trail is as much a book about the outsize impact of marginal characters on history as it is about the fallen giants.
Though Sides spends less time teasing Martin Luther King off the pages and into real life than he does with Ray, he achieves far more. There is King the civil rights leader, but there is also King the drinking, smoking womanizer. “So extravagant was his promiscuity that some who knew about it questioned his sincerity in professing basic Christian beliefs,” Deke DeLoach, former deputy chief at the FBI, later wrote; the night before the assassination, King slept with a Kentucky State Senator named Georgia Davis. Touching on King’s transgressions, rather than tarnishing King’s image, does what excellent narrative non-fiction should: adding an element of humanity to characters long since fixed in their ways—at least in our imaginations. The image of King laying in bed, fully clothed, smoking a cigarette and watching the riots just outside his Memphis hotel room forever transformed him into a three-dimensional character. He did not always live on the mountaintop.
And yet, perhaps the most dramatic element of the book goes beyond the prison breakouts, assassinations, and fugitive chases to encompass the reaction of the FBI--and specifically its director, J. Edgar Hoover—to King’s death. According to Sides, agents in the FBI’s Atlanta office had “probably exhausted more man-hours on King—following and wiretapping and bugging and attempting to smear him—than they’d spent working on any other single subject.” Hoover, who believed that King was working for the Soviets, the Chinese, and the Cubans, was determined to undermine him. Hoover even once had a note sent to King’s house, urging him to commit suicide.
But catching Ray became the ultimate test of the FBI’s credibility and professionalism—something Hoover wasn’t about to discard over personal enmity. By the end, the Bureau would spend roughly $2 million ($12 million in today’s dollars) and temporarily reassign more than half of the FBI’s six thousand agents to the case. During the 1930s, the pursuit of John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, and Bonnie and Clyde prepared the newly formed FBI for an era of fighting organized crime at home; the hunt for James Earl Ray may have done the same for the FBI’s preparedness fighting transnational criminals.
One major question remains at the end of the book: how did Ray, a poor, fugitive bumpkin, manage to elude the FBI for as long as he did? Traveling on fake documents, he robbed a jewelry store, a bank, and crossed multiple international borders until his eventual arrest. The FBI used taxpayer dollars for its chase. Whose money was Ray spending? Sides acknowledges the mystery—and leaves it there. Books can do that. But the filmmakers, if they ever come to making the movie, may have to create a conspiracy that did not exist.
Nicholas Schmidle, a fellow at the New America Foundation, is the author of To Live or to Perish Forever: Two Tumultuous Years in Pakistan.