From veteran journalist and historian Sides (Blood and Thunder, 2006, etc.), a riveting account of James Earl Ray’s long quest to kill Martin Luther King Jr.
Prisoner 416-J, late of the state penitentiary in Jefferson City, Mo., spent a large part of the first months of 1967 perfecting a circus-ready form of yoga. With it, as Sides’s vigorous account begins, he folded himself into an impossibly tight space, namely a breadbox, and fled from prison, criss-crossing the country before winding up in Los Angeles and attending bartender school. Somewhere along the way, he fell under the spell of George Wallace, the firebrand Alabama governor who had promised segregation forever, and took it as his earthly task to kill King. According to Sides, Ray’s timing was never quite right until he found a hotel room across from King’s in Memphis, Tenn., and took his fateful shot. He escaped, again following a tortuous course that eventually took him to Portugal and other faraway points. Finally captured and imprisoned, he managed to escape again—one might assume with help, though the author discounts this possibility. Ray was soon recaptured, and he died in prison in 1998. Sides follows Ray in a nearly minute-by-minute account that has all the fascination, if little of the inevitability, of Frederick Forsyth’s Day of the Jackal (1971). The author does not speculate unduly on conspiracy theories of the sort advanced by Ray’s brother, John Larry Ray, in his 2008 book Truth at Last, but there is room for the careful reader to imagine that someone helped him along on his hunt for King—after all, as Sides observes, “he must have had an accomplice—or several accomplices” to have made good his escape from Jefferson City.
An expertly written study in true crime, vividly recapturing the mood of 1968.