It's no easy task to make a story thrum with tension when everyone knows how it ends. • But Hampton Sides' new book about the man who murdered the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. 42 years ago is as urgent a page-turner as any crime novel — a feat Sides accomplishes without sacrificing historical detail and insight. • Its title borrowed from a classic Robert Johnson blues moan, Hellhound on His Trail zeroes in on the year leading up to King's death in Memphis, Tenn., and the two months after, when his killer ricocheted around North America and Europe before his capture in London. • Only late in the book, when the FBI discovers his true identity, does Sides use his subject's real name. Until then he uses the man's aliases, most of the time Eric Starvo Galt, a surname possibly borrowed from Ayn Rand's hero in Atlas Shrugged, first and middle names echoes of an archvillain in several of Ian Fleming's James Bond novels.
Sides begins with Galt's escape — the first in the institution's 131-year history — from the maximum-security Jefferson City Penitentiary in Missouri. In for armed robbery, he'd spent most of his adult life in prison; after he escaped by squeezing himself into a fetal ball inside a metal locker filled with loaves of bread, he went back to his old lifestyle of renting shabby rooms in flophouses and committing small-time crimes like drug dealing and robbery.
He drifted around the South, then to Mexico and Los Angeles, entertaining career possibilities that ranged from pornographic filmmaker to mercenary soldier, but actually did little. Galt is a strangely opaque character, a man who made few connections with others, but Sides skillfully uses that quality to build the book's suspense. Using interviews, FBI files and the man's own memoirs, he details the known facts of Galt's life, but he can't take us inside his head to answer that all-important question: Why?
Why, after many aimless months, was Galt suddenly galvanized to work as a volunteer in California for segregationist George Wallace's presidential campaign? Why did he begin following the movements of King, finally traveling cross-country to a city he had never visited, buying a Remington .30-06 rifle on the way and using it days later to fire a single devastating shot that left King dying on a motel balcony and a nation racked with violence and grief?
Alternating with chapters about Galt are many about his victim, and the contrasts are stark. King is a brilliant and charismatic orator always surrounded by aides and admirers; Galt is an inarticulate loner notable mainly for his mumbly voice and inability to look people in the eye. King is an internationally admired celebrity; Galt is, to some degree by his own design, a nowhere man.
Sides puts King's activities in the last months of his life into vivid historical context, describing the garbage workers' strike that drew King to Memphis as well as the tensions that beset him, from his fears that his opposition to the war in Vietnam was distracting him too much from civil rights to the tenuous state of his marriage — and his sense that he did not have long to live, embodied in the eerie "I've been to the mountaintop" speech he gave the night before his death.
Sides also includes other major figures in his story. Early sections about J. Edgar Hoover recall the FBI director's obsessive hatred of King. He devoted huge amounts of the FBI's resources to trying to destroy the preacher, turning up evidence of King's affairs but none that indicated he was a subversive or Communist. Particularly chilling is the anonymous package the FBI sent to King, with a collection of its "most lurid recordings" of his trysts and a letter urging him to commit suicide.
But after King was killed, Hoover turned his agency fully to the investigation. Sides gives us a picture of the enormous amount of legwork it took to follow Galt's dizzying path before and after the shooting, as well as the mountain of physical evidence the FBI's labs analyzed for the case, before Galt was arrested at Heathrow Airport for trying to carry a gun onto a plane without a permit (legal in the United States then, but not in Britain) and identified as James Earl Ray.
Sides does not venture into the rabbit hole that is conspiracy theory about King's death, choosing to focus on facts that can be documented. But it's easy to see why such theories still proliferate — the many tantalizing blanks in Ray's life leave plenty of room for them to grow.
Instead, 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.
He also reminds us that, 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. Here is Sides' portrait of George Wallace: "People loved his bumptious sense of humor, the rockabilly growl in his voice, the way he shook his fist in defiance when he really got worked up. … At rallies around the country he had a litany of phrases that he used over and over, lines calculated to get a lusty guffaw out of the crowd."
Whether Wallace's virulently racist speech moved James Earl Ray directly is something we cannot know, but Sides notes the political dynamic operating in 1968, another time when the nation was intensely, even violently, polarized:
"Wallace had called the Nobel laureate everything but the Antichrist, but in an odd way Wallace needed King, for the governor understood that great political strategies can exist in the abstract for only so long before cooking down to the personal."
Colette Bancroft can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8435. She blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.