Murder, She Writes
Why I returned to true crime
A few months ago, a friend sent me a link to podcast I had never heard of: My Favorite Murder. Co-hosted by the comedians Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark, it had been taped in front of an enthusiastic and largely female audience in Toronto’s Sony Centre. “You’ll be surprised,” my friend texted. “They were all over The Massey Murder.”
I stuck in my earbuds and listened as two cheerful American voices rattled on about boy bands, Spanx, sunburns, and their vintage outfits. One joked about her father smoking weed, and the other told a story about dropping a joint in Detroit. Almost seamlessly, the two super-cool hosts pivoted to a discussion of a 1915 murder in Toronto, a case that is the centrepiece of my 2013 book, The Massey Murder. I had used this story as a doorway into the social history of Ontario in the early twentieth century. I had explored how the crime revealed a city and a country in a state of flux, as men went to war, women demanded the vote, and Canada evolved from an agricultural to an industrial nation. It had never crossed my mind that it might also be comedy-show material.
I was mesmerized. Kilgariff and Hardstack did a great job retelling the tragic story of the eighteen-year-old maid Carrie Davies, who shot her employer at point-blank range. The hosts ricocheted between serious reflections on exploited domestic servants and snappy repartee about those involved (“Bert Massey — total loser”). The audience shrieked with glee when they heard that the maid was declared not guilty because Massey had sexually harassed her. As Kilgariff said, the whole story is “so fucking modern.” She riffed about how Davies got off only because she was a white virgin, and it would be great if a black, brown, or trans person could expect the same level of justice.
My book was duly credited. But a comedy about grisly true crime? A slice of Canadian history featured on a show that is regularly atop comedy podcast charts and has 19 million monthly downloads? One that ends on the catchphrase “Stay sexy, and don’t get murdered”?
Does My Favorite Murder, I wondered, signal that the true crime genre has been done to death?
There have always been great books about real-life crimes (think Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, or any of the Victorian melodramas about Jack the Ripper), but the genre has exploded thanks to podcasts and streaming services that devote hours to the minutiae of murder. In the past few years, shows like HBO’s The Jinx and Netflix’s Making a Murderer have spawned an epidemic of imitators. Most of the biggest podcast hits have been gruesome stories, usually involving women as victims: Serial, about the conviction of Adnan Syed for the murder of his girlfriend Hae Min Lee; Dirty John, about the abuse of Debra Newell by a charming con artist; Dr. Death, about a Texas surgeon who left thirty-two patients seriously injured and two dead; Someone Knows Something, now into its fifth season of deaths and disappearances. Viewers and listeners are awash in tales of unreliable witnesses, dodgy forensic evidence, and corrupt cops.
The tales come clad in the trappings of stylish thrillers and Nordic noir paperbacks, but the crimes are real. They tap into today’s deep vein of distrust, dark anxieties, and sense of helplessness. Sometimes, producers can argue that their podcast serves the public interest; Serial ’s exploration of Syed’s conviction led to a court appeal, for example. But elsewhere the treatment is frankly voyeuristic, wallowing in salacious details and turning private tragedies into public entertainment. The shows may reopen old wounds for those who lived through the original events. The Netflix eight-episode series The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann, about a three-year-old British child who vanished in Portugal in 2007, was described by the Guardian as “a blatant cash-in on the vogue for the true crime series” and “morally and creatively bankrupt.”
I am a historian and biographer. Nerd that I am, my idea of a good time is a day spent poring over old letters, diaries, and ships’ manifests. I stockpile relevant archival records, political and social contextual material gleaned from secondary sources, vivid impressions of the built and natural environment, and insights into long-dead characters. Then I relish the challenge of weaving it all into a compelling narrative that will take readers into yesterday’s world and show its resonance today. So I had not expected The Massey Murder to be shelved in the true crime section of bookstores — but it often is. Over the past fifteen years, history has sunk into back-of-bookstore limbo, while those eye-catching front-of-store tables are piled high with crime, police procedurals, thrillers, and whodunits. And I definitely want my books to be at the popular end of the room.
And now I’m about to publish another one that, like The Massey Murder, uses a murder as a doorway into a fascinating period. Murdered Midas introduces readers to Sir Harry Oakes, who was once known as the richest man in the British Empire (and pal of the Duke of Windsor). A truculent, dogged prospector, he struck a huge seam of gold in Kirkland Lake, in northern Ontario, and through sheer hard work and determination managed to maintain ownership of his mine as he developed it from a lucky strike to a golden gusher. His eagerness to avoid taxes took him to the Bahamas, where he met a brutal end in 1943. His murderer was never caught (but I have my suspicions).
Why did I choose to write another book centred on a brutal killing? There are three aspects of the Oakes story that caught my eye. The first is Oakes’s place in the business history of Canada, a country that still depends on extractive industries to keep the economy purring. Oakes’s extraordinary achievement contributed to the gold rush that made Toronto the mining capital of the world in the 1920s. My research trips to the resource towns of the North — Kirkland Lake, Cobalt, Haileybury — also helped me understand the tough-minded self-help spirit of often struggling communities.
The second intriguing aspect of the Oakes story is what happened in the sweaty, cramped Nassau courtroom during the three-and-a-half-week trial, and why the supposedly slam-dunk case against the playboy accused of Oakes’s murder went off the rails. As every true crime podcaster knows, courtroom scenes are inherently dramatic: the imposing rituals, the cunning legal strategies, the clash of competing narratives, the unpredictability of juries. The intensity leaps off the dry trial transcripts; it can be hard to stay objective. As Janet Malcolm, author of The Journalist and the Murderer, has written, “No rooting in the courtroom please. But rooting is in our blood; we take sides as we take breaths.”
The third appeal was Oakes’s afterlife. In the words of Jean‑Paul Sartre, “A corpse is open to all comers,” and Oakes did not fare well at the hands of those who covered his case. I wanted to explore the ways that more than a dozen authors and at least four filmmakers have skewed his story and manipulated history to suit their own agendas. Opportunistic writers, including Erle Stanley Gardner and Charles Higham, were all too happy to spin the facts into books that fit the popular genres of the late twentieth century: thrillers about the Mafia, for example, and gossipy biographies about the royal family. Many of their efforts were as morally bankrupt as the worst Netflix true crime series.
Murdered Midas is about a real crime, but it is also about real history. After getting to know Harry Oakes over the past three years, I hope I’ve demonstrated that the true historical context of a murder may be more complicated — and interesting — than anything a Hollywood movie (even if Rod Steiger stars or Nicolas Roeg directs) or a comedy podcast can capture.