The year 2014 marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the First World War, so we can expect a flood of flag-waving, chest-thumping museum exhibitions, television documentaries, and books devoted to the subject. Chances are not many of them will be as gripping and insightful as historian Charlotte Gray’s examination of a notorious Toronto murder of the time.
Charles Albert “Bert” Massey, a grandson of the founder of the Massey farm-machinery empire, was walking home after work on Feb. 8, 1915. As he climbed the steps to the verandah of his Toronto home, the Masseys’ maid, Carrie Davies, opened the front door and fatally shot him. The 18-year-old Davies, a British immigrant, claimed Massey had made a pass at her the day before. The maid was frightened of further sexual misadventures at the hands of a wealthy establishment man who, she thought, wanted to “ruin” her. The subsequent murder trial was fought not just in the courtroom but in Toronto’s scandal-loving newspapers.
Readers familiar with Gray’s meticulously researched biographies of 19th- and early-20th-century women – including poet Pauline Johnson, suffragette Nellie McClung, and the mother of prime minister Mackenzie King – have come to expect engaging characters alongside a detailed evocation of the sights and sounds of a particular period. In The Massey Murder, Gray maintains that standard, painting a vivid picture of life during wartime, of the Canadian justice system, and of the era’s sexual mores, class divisions, and newspaper wars.
Like all good courtroom dramas, the pace is brisk. But Gray’s book constitutes a work of history, not pulp fiction. Gray anchors her narrative to the historical record, which does not answer all the questions surrounding the murder or its culprit. Carrie Davies left no diary or letters by which future authors could dissect her inner motives. Nevertheless, Gray has managed to resurrect a devilishly intriguing character, albeit one who remains elusive and enigmatic.