Review: Swanson’s Manhunt

Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer (P.S.)
James Swanson

I am an American male who has reached middle age. This means I must read at least one civil war related book a year for the next twenty-five years. This year, I read this gripping account of Lincoln’s assassination, the flight of his killers, and their eventual capture. Its captivating stuff told with a scholars attention to detail but in the moment by moment style of a page-turner.

Swanson is also an interesting guy. He was for a number of years a justice department lawyer and a very serious amateur Lincoln scholar. I love the serious amateur scholar, and am amazed at how well versed he is in the history of the assassination (and apparently how much he owns that is connected to it). I love writers like this, and books like this, I wish there were more of them.

Review: Side’s Hellhound on His Trail

Hellhound on His Trail: The Electrifying Account of the Largest Manhunt in American History
Hampton Sides

Hampton Side’s gripping, almost moment by moment, recounting of the events surrounding the assignation of Martin Luther King is a must read if the history of the civil rights movement, and the attempts to destroy it, mean anything to you.

The book alternates between the story of King’s and James Earl Ray’s lives in the year or so before King’s assassination. In some ways, this feels almost unfair. King was, of course, a much more important man that Ray. He gets more of the book’s pages, but perhaps not enough. While Ray spent the year before murdering King drinking too much, being a loser, and festering in a sea of hate, King was going about changing the country. Still, though at times I felt a bit uncomfortable with the attention bestowed on Ray, the minute attention paid to his life brings his sad existence into clarity. While it doesn’t explain why he did what he did, it does give is some context.

I think of myself as pretty well versed in the civil rights movement, but there was much here that was new to me, including the detailed recounting of the internal politics within the SCLC. Jackson comes off as ethically challenged, Abernathy as in over his head, and King as a flawed but brilliant — an almost messiah like leader. It makes for compelling stuff. This book was obviously deeply researched, but it wears that research lightly. You’ll learn much about King, the strike in Memphis, the hate filled corners of America, the conspiracy theories surrounding Kings death, and all that was insane about America in the mid-60s, but you’ll learn it within the breezy language of a journalist at the top of his game. For fans of popular history, this book can’t be beat.