Robert Machray is described as a writer of “simple-minded mysteries” in the Oxford Companion to Edwardian Fiction, and this novel The Lincoln’s Inn Mystery would probably qualify as that. In my view, however, it rises above simple-minded. Certainly, this is not a work of literary depth – but it is a well-plotted yarn that is a delight to read and highly entertaining.
What’s even more intriguing is the story behind the novel.
As it turns out, Robert Machray was the nephew of the Anglican Bishop ROBERT MACHRAY, an extremely important figure in Canada from the mid-1800s into the early part of the 20th Century. He was instrumental in the development of the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg.
Bishop Machray was also elected the “First Primate of all Canada” by the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada. He was the bishop of Rubert’s Land” a huge area within the vast land of Canada.
In 1874, Bishop Machray’s two nephews, John and Robert Machray, were sent from Scotland to live under his care. John was educated at the University of Manitoba and went on to become an extremely powerful and later notorious public official in Winnipeg. He was eventually convicted of embezzling and/or misappropriating $1.8 million in funds from a variety of sources. (John Machray)
This was an enormous amount of money in early 1900s Canada, making John Machray something of the “Bernie Madoff” of his time, at least in this region of southern Canada. He died in prison in 1933.
So what’s remarkable to me is that in this tale a criminal British lawyer, Cooper Silwood, has embezzled funds from his own law firm and partners, Eversleigh, Silwood and Eversleigh. It is almost certainly inspired by the machinations of John Machray.
And yet, this book was published in 1910, some 22 years before Robert Machray's brother was finally prosecuted and convicted. It seems amazing to me that author Machray would write a novel that is so obviously based on the shady practices of this brother. One might think the book would have tipped off the Powers-That-Be that something was rotten in Denmark ... er, I mean, Canada!
It makes me wonder if the author was making a kind of back door attempt to flush out his own brother. Like his famous uncle, Robert Machray was ordained clergy of the Church of England. Even though he resigned his clerical duties to pursue the life of a writer, perhaps he maintained a high degree of moral propriety, and thus may have been disgusted about what he apparently knew about his brother.
Anyway, you don’t have to appreciate the extraordinary background to enjoy The Mystery of Lincoln’s Inn. All the juicy elements of a great mystery are here. There’s a dastardly criminal. There are pure-of-heart good guys and women who get caught up in an agonizing web of deceit, greed and corruption. A mysterious death and a jilted lover also thicken the plot and add depth to the narrative.
But what I really liked about this book is a hint of an understated cynical humor. This is almost a black comedy. It’s as if the intelligent, sophisticated and former Anglican minister Robert Machray found the folly of his fellow human beings not just sad, but slightly ludicrous.
The book is set mostly in London, but I was delighted that some of the events take place here in my native Minnesota. I think any lover of mystery novels will find this a first-class read. It hasn't lost it's edge or relevance despite being published more than a century ago.
Note: This book is available as a free download ebook in all formats on the Project Gutenberg site HERE.
Ken Korczak is the author of: THE FAIRY REDEMPTION OF JUBAL CRANCH