My latest foray into nonfiction is Charlotte Gray’s fantastic Massey Murder: A Maid, Her Master, and the Trial that Shocked a Country. On the surface, Gray takes a look at a trial, but this book is much more. It’s a snapshot of Toronto during a time of change and turmoil. Women were fighting to be recognized as something more than wives and mothers, and Canadians were shipping off to Europe to fight on the front lines. The trial and the war do not initially make much sense being juxtaposed against one another, but the strength of Gray’s writing is in her ability to combine a seemingly unrelated trial to the larger scope of events that occupied the minds of an entire country.
In February 1915, eighteen year old, Carrie Davies shot and killed her employer, Charles “Bert” Massey. This act captured the attention of the masses for a short time in February, and showcases the divided attitudes and social codes of a city in flux.
Immediately following the shooting, Carrie was arrested and brought to trial, much quicker than would have been expected. The Massey family attempted to quiet the scandal, but the newspapers and one intrepid lawyer would not let this story die. Not because Carrie was innocent, there’s no way of truly knowing this, but because of the prestige this case offered. The newspapers sold stories and took very biased approaches to the Carries innocence of lack thereof. The lawyer wanted the notoriety that he could receive from both defending Carrie and getting ahead of a very powerful Toronto family.
What immediately struck me in The Massey Murder is the fact that Carrie, the apparent “heroine” of this narrative, played such a passive role. Every single person around her used her and her situation for some advantage. Carrie’s lawyer didn’t really even spend much time with Carrie and he spun a convincing tale that put Carrie into a positive light for the jury. Carrie Davies caused the event that sparked much debate, but she wasn’t really involved in any deciding factors of her fate. This struck me as unbearably sad, and really speaks to the status of women at this time. Yes, women were fighting for rights, but the way Carrie was manipulated throughout her trial demonstrates how far these women had to go. It also says much about the justice system of the time (and perhaps today’s, as well). I also think that the manipulation of Carrie also speaks to the manipulation of both the masses and the men who were convinced to go to war for “duty” and “honour”. For me, the theme of manipulation is what brought the seemingly divergent threads together.
It was fascinating how Gray combined one contained event (the murder and trial) and threaded within a much larger narrative: the war. I was surprised about the amount of time the author spent detailing the war, but I do think it worked here. The scandalous murder helped Torontonians focus on something other than the war effort, and I think it explained much of the attitude that the general public had towards Carrie and the entire trial. Without the war narrative, I think it would be difficult to truly understand the attitude of the people of the city and subsequently, those involved in the trial.
The newspaper element was also interesting to me, especially the notion of newspaper wars. Gray expertly demonstrates how blatantly the popular newspapers of the day spun the murder of Bert Massey to suit their needs. One, The Evening Telegram, was on the side of Carrie; they played to their readership and garnered their sympathies by emphasizing Carrie’s Britishness and innocence. The Toronto Daily Star, on the other hand, went in opposite direction, putting forth Carrie as the villain in this piece. Neither was concerned with the truth of the events, but were motivated by less admirable goals. These newspapers and the people that ran them, had prejudices and supported certain factions and families in the city, and supporting them came paramount to the truth of events.
Ultimately, The Massey Murder was a great read. I loved Gray’s writing style and I think it will appeal to fiction readers who are not in love with nonfiction. I also think the showcasing of historic Toronto will appeal to fans of the popular TV show, Murdoch Mysteries, I know it came immediately to mind as soon as I started reading this one. A highly recommended read!
For a fiction choice, I recommend Jennifer Robson’s Somewhere in France. While this one is not set in Canada, I do think it will appeal as the young woman at the centre of the story is fighting for her right to be something more than a debutant. My full review here.
A more historic read that I recommend is The Wolf, the story of a German freighter that terrorized the seas during WWI. Like Massey Murder, The Wolf captures the attitude of the world at a specific time. My full review here.
Lastly, I’ll also recommend The Beautiful Cigar Girl, which I think will appeal to readers that were intrigued by the newspaper wars. In Beautiful Cigar Girl, the newspapers did not operate by fact and it gets you thinking about the nature of news creation. I also think it will interest readers because, unlike Carrie, the murdered young woman did not have her innocence as a defense, which made the general public view this event in a different way.