I am not a great reader of non-fiction, but books by Charlotte Gray always tempt me and this one was chosen by both Amazon.ca and The Globe and Mail as a top 100 book of the year and was a finalist for the RBC Taylor Prize. Gray does not disappoint.
Charles “Bert” Massey, grandson of the Massey agricultural-machinery empire, was shot by the family maid, 18-year-old Carrie Davies, on Feb. 8, 1915, when he arrived home at the end of the workday. She claimed to be afraid of further sexual advances by her employer. The crime and subsequent trial made headline news.
In the preface, Gray states, “This book is a story about Toronto in the early twentieth century, a fast-changing and divided community in the process of reinvention, and about Canada as it embarked on a century of dramatic evolution” and her description is certainly accurate. It portrays life in Toronto during the first years of WWI, Canadian jurisprudence and politics, the sexual mores and class divisions of the era, the conditions under which domestic servants lived, the emergence of organizations fighting for women’s rights, and the wars between newspapers.
Many times, the murder case takes a back seat to the study of society, so the title is actually misleading. Gray sometimes does not meet the challenge of “prevent[ing] the layers of circumstantial detail from overshadowing the story.” Gray describes Carrie as “a cork floating on powerful cross-currents of assumptions about class, race and gender” and Gray meticulously researched these cross-currents to explain the reason for the eventual verdict.
As in Gray’s other books, the portraits of participants are vivid. Hartley Dewart, Carrie’s defense lawyer; Chief Justice Sir William Mulock, the presiding judge; John Ross Robertson, owner of the Evening Telegram; and Mary Ethel Massey, the victim’s sister-in-law, are especially memorable.
This is an excellent example of narrative non-fiction. It is a wonderful chronicle of life in Toronto one hundred years ago and it shows how the turmoil of that time decided the fate of a lowly domestic servant.