Charlotte Gray spends the first part of her book about the murder of early 20th-century millionaire Harry Oakes describing how many books have already been written about the murder of Harry Oakes. And to tell the truth, it’s easy to see why the story, which would delight any true-crime fan, has been popular. Notwithstanding the glut of material already available – and the title of her own book – Gray is more interested in her central figure’s life than his eventual violent death.
Born in 1874 in Maine, Harry Oakes travelled the world in search of gold, striking it rich at Kirkland Lake, Ontario. A millionaire by the age of 42, Oakes then moved to Niagara Falls, Ontario, then on to Florida, and finally Nassau, Bahamas, where in 1943 his body was discovered in his home after a violent storm. The investigation, arrest, trial, and acquittal of Oakes’s son-in-law were sensations: shoddy police work, family strife, and a plausible alternate suspect were fodder for stories in newspapers around the world. The details exposed during the trial are so lurid that Gray admits she had to struggle to avoid overwhelming “stark facts with colourful adjectives and judgmental prose.”
Gray’s self-imposed task of focusing on Oakes’s life presents a challenge, in that he did not leave behind much of a personal record; it is hard to say if Gray has succeeded in showing another possible side to his character. The sources she was able to find seem to confirm that he was a hard man who “rarely showed compassion for individuals,” to the point that even his charitable acts were motivated by self-interest. One of the few verifiable facts about the man is that he did everything possible to protect his vast assets from taxation, which does not make him particularly easy to warm to.
That being said, Gray’s portraits of everyone else in the book are engaging. Each character is vividly described, even while the focus remains on how they fit into Oakes’s story. Particularly engaging are the sections relating to the Duke of Windsor, the former King Edward VIII, who was governor of the Bahamas at the time of the murder. The ex-monarch’s reputation for poor decision-making seems well deserved based on Gray’s depictions of his actions regarding the murder investigation and its aftermath.
Gray also succeeds beautifully in her sketches of the communities that form the backdrop for Oakes’s story. In particular, her description of Bahamian society is fascinating, especially her analysis of the tensions between a wealthy white elite man and an oppressed Black minority in the years before the island’s independence from Britain. While Gray does not appear to bring much new information to light about the man at the heart of the story, Murdered Midas does a very good job of putting Oakes, his murder, and its fallout in historical context, all of which makes for an entertaining and satisfying read.