Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Completed: Hellhound on His Trail


This was a great, entertaining read. It starts just a few weeks before King's assassination, with Eric Galt escaping from prison. Who is Eric Galt? you may be wondering. It was the alias used by James Earl Ray as he prepared to kill King. The book uses whichever alias the killer went by in real time, and only reveals the name James Earl Ray once the FBI uncovers it. At first, that was sort of annoying, but he uses so many aliases that it actually begins to make sense.

The book goes back and forth between the movements of King and his assassin, with occasional forays into the actions of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and other politicians and investigators. But the whole is tightly focused on King and Ray and the events leading up to the assassination at the Lorraine Hotel.

I would say the best part of this book is that it proves the old axiom that Truth is Stranger than Fiction. The story itself is almost unbelievable in it's twists and turns and near escapes. The way the FBI figured out that Galt was the main suspect is an example of meticulous detective work---and all without technology! We are so used to seeing the way police investigate on TV,  but the hours and hours of manpower that went into this investigation were truly astounding. FBI agents combed through thousands of fingerprint cards and passport photos by hand! Where's the CSI team when you need them?

The book reads like a novel is someways, and clearly the author heavily researched the topic. The lists of what items Galt had in his bag, or of the whereabouts of all the different players is specific and fascinating. This was a quick, fast paced read. Even though I knew the big picture, I found the meticulous attention to detail to be completely compelling.

I have only a few quibbles with this book. One, and this is a little silly, I guess, but it really needed a section of photos. At one point, the author describes how a famous photograph was taken only moments after the assassination. King was shot on the balcony outside his hotel room in Memphis. Although no one saw the shooter, many of them ran towards King to help him. One of King's friends had grabbed a camera. Minutes later, the police arrived and "At first, many in King's entourage thought the police were attacking them--that the [hotel] was under siege. Then the cops yelled, 'Where'd the shot come from? Where'd the shot come from?' Young, Abernathy, and the others standing over King raised their arms and pointed up slightly to the right..as they did so, Joe Louw snapped..a photograph suffused with palpable urgency and thinning hope" (173). I mean, I've seen this photo before, but I had to pause and look it up on the internet at this point. Perhaps there was some copyright issues preventing its use? Another time, they describe how the original Wanted Poster had a picture with closed eyes, and so an artist had to draw them in. This is difficult to imagine without seeing it!

The author makes a wise decision to stick to the facts and not try to imagine what people might have been thinking of feeling. When he quotes someone, it was from another source, an article or biography, etc. However, this did leave me feeling a bit confused as to motive. I know what Ray is doing, but I don't know why. Apparently, the guy was a born con man and liar, so everything he said later conflicted with other parts of his story. But in the heat of the manhunt, it left me feeling that the biggest part of the story was missing.

It doesn't help that Ray was such a complete and total nut job. There's proof given of his extensive racism, for example he called King Martin Lucifer Coon, or his love of Governor George Wallace (famous for saying "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!); however, Ray's eventual goal after killing King is to take refuge in Rhodesia. I mean, what kind of idiot that hates all black people want to go to AFRICA? I mean, really? As it turns out, they had no extradition to the US and a virulent white supremacist in charge. This was back when Europeans ruled the Continent. That, and Ray figured he could get hired as a mercenary so he could kill as many black people as he wanted. What a prince.

Eventually, after about two months on the lam, they caught Ray in London, trying to make his way to Brussels. The book comes to a quick end, summarizing only briefly the trial and ending with a second successful escape from jail in 1977, although this time they quickly caught him. By the way, another example of Ray's mental instability is that he continues to deny that he is James Earl Ray, insisting they call him by his alias. However, he then asks his lawyer to call his brother, saying, "Oh, he lives in Chicago. His name is Jerry Ray" (377). He eluded the biggest manhunt in history for two months, so he's clearly clever, but also a bit crazy. But then again, I guess you'd have to be...you know, to be an assassin.

As I finish here, can we discuss why almost all non-fiction books have these super long subtitles? The actual title of this one is Hellhound on His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King Jr. and the International Hunt for his Assassin. Interestingly, the paperback got retitled to Hellhound on His Trail: The Electrifying Account of the Largest Manhunt in History. Come on, is that really better? Who's in charge of this? But, I actually think the second title is more accurate, because if I have any quibble with this book, I'd say that it fails to make the case for stalking. Given the lack of internal motive, the book is much more about the manhunt and what happens after than it is about the events before.

Finally, I guess the way I feel right now is a little...I don't know...wrong..about reading this. The focus is much more on Ray than on King. It makes me want to read more about King and the positive things he did with his life over the focus on his killer. In fact, one of the most interesting things in the book is the response of King's allies, friends, and family. Their focus in not on the one person who pulled the trigger, but rather their conviction that it was American society that made such a killer possible. The FBI could catch Ray, but does catching that one man really fix America's problems?
 In fact, when one of King's children asked his mother, "Should I hate the man that killed my father?" Coretta Scott King answered, "No, darling, your daddy wouldn't want you to do that."

1 comment:

  1. Heh. Your comment about "Why do non-fiction books have super long crazy subtitles?" is about to be re-visited in my next post... I've got one too!

    As for this story, it does sound interesting. I don't think you have to feel "wrong" about reading more about the manhunt than the man -- there are a lot of books about the man himself, so this is one interesting aspect of the story -- sounds like it was engrossing, too... so if that leads people to learn a bit more about King himself (and I would think it would), that's a good thing.

    I've always found that photograph you posted to be chilling and heartbreaking. And here's the Wanted poster -- the third photograph is the one with the eyes from another source. (You're right -- it was difficult to imagine! So... I looked it up. ;) )