HELLHOUND ON HIS TRAIL

Written by Hampton Sides

Review written by Di Shelley

Di found her niche in life in 1970 when she joined the BBC as a freelance producer and broadcaster working BBC Radio Bristol and later branching out into BBC Radio 2 & 4. She is on the committee for www.mysterywomen.co.uk


HELLHOUND ON HIS TRAIL
Penguin
RRP: £9.99
Released: 5th May 2011
Pbk

A number of people who’ve read Hellhound have described it as “a thriller.” Though they intended this as a compliment, I’m not sure I took it as one – for, in effect, it implies that I’ve turned a national tragedy into an entertainment of sorts.’

 So states Hampton Sides in the Afterword of this book, but like it or not, this is how it reads. From the opening pages – A Note to Readers - this book grips both the attention and the imagination.

 Centered around the assassination of Doctor Martin Luther King on April 4th 1968, it begins a year earlier with the escape of a prisoner from the Missouri State Penitentiary at Jefferson City. It was this prisoner - 416-J - who later stunned the world with his murderous actions – James Earl Ray.

 Sides not only follows Ray’s trail from the prison to that fateful night in Memphis, but drawing on extensive research, he also takes us on a journey through the mind of the man – his politics, his racial hatred, his numerous changes of identity.

 But that’s not all.

 Set against the backdrop of political unrest and the growing Civil Rights movement, the actions of each of the key players during that time are also chronicled. So we have an almost day by day insight into the life and politics of those most intimately connected to Martin Luther King – either as his colleagues and supporters or as his adversaries.

 Now that makes it sound heavy, but far from it. Yes, this is an intense book, dense with fact, but it’s oh so readable. The pace, the deftness and tautness of style, the suspense - it’s difficult to believe that this is not an epic work of fiction. It’s even more difficult to comprehend the sheer volume of research that went into the creation of this book. And it’s the tiny details of that research that bring it to life. For instance, this incident when Ray was posing as Eric Galt:

… he wanted his regular laundry folded, with no starch. The laundry’s desk clerk, Mrs. Annie Estelle Peters, wrote his name on the ticket in perfect Palmer penmanship cursive – “Galt, Eric.’

 You just know that Hamilton Sides has actually seen that ticket, and this just illustrates the meticulousness of his research. Incidentally that laundry plays a major part in Ray’s identity and capture.

 The events leading up to the assassination and the assassination itself are obviously described in great detail, but it doesn’t end there. Sides goes on to unravel the chaos in the immediate aftermath of the shooting; the potential for rioting, the reactions of all concerned, the pressure on government and the FBI whose detailed investigation eventually ledto the arrest of the killer.

 
I have learned lot from this book; a lot about the main players obviously, but more about a period of my own past that even though I was living through it, I was in ignorance of it. I just wish Hampton Sides could shed a similar illumination on our own political past.

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