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Ross Mackay, brilliant maverick lawyer

Writing Ross Mackay, the Saga of a Brilliant Criminal Lawyer was a trip down memory lane for the Toronto Star’s crime fiction reviewer, Jack Batten. On his Acknowledgements page, Batten says his research for the biography began with his own recollections of the gifted maverick.

Batten and Mackay attended the same high school, the University of Toronto Schools, where Batten developed a fascination with “this clever, cool, good-looking guy, a contemporary of mine but far more daring, nervy, and troubled than anyone I had ever before encountered.” Years later, Batten watched Mackay in one of his famous murder cases, and says that he was dazzled.

Book Six in his True Cases Series, Batten’s biography of Mackay—from his Toronto boyhood in the 1940s growing up in a tiny apartment over a variety store with quick-fisted, working-class rowdies as buddies; his decision to become a criminal lawyer to defend people like his childhood pals; and his unswerving belief that his clients were entitled to the best defences possible—is a riveting read. The writing is crisp and colloquial, and brings us right into Mackay’s world.

Mackay is probably best remembered by many as representing the last two persons to be executed in Canada for murder: Arthur Lucas and Ronald Turpin. Both were hanged in Toronto’s Don Jail on Dec. 11, 1962. Mackay was just 29 years old at the time, had no financing for his defences, and only 19 days between the two trials. Nevertheless, he did his best to represent them, and Batten’s account really sings in these chapters.

Mackay’s life was a rollercoaster of euphoric highs and wretched lows. His personal demons were worsened by the pressures of his cases; Batten says he had nightmares for years after the executions of Lucas and Turpin. In the 1970s, Mackay was diagnosed as suffering from manic depression, a condition later renamed bipolar, which brought on his destructive mood swings, and his efforts to self-medicate with alcohol deepened the disease’s impact. Batten relates it all with candor and compassion.

Through the highs and lows, Mackay continued to fight his heart out for his clients. Several times a year, he travelled to Millhaven and the other prisons in the Kingston area to visit former clients who were incarcerated there with no prospects of getting out soon. Batten quotes Toronto former defence counsel Peter Zaduk as saying, “When Ross came back from the prisons, he looked pale and wasted. Those visits were draining the life out of him, but it never entered his mind to give them up.”

Ross Mackay, the Saga of a Brilliant Criminal Lawyer paints a vivid picture of Toronto during Mackay’s lifetime: the Annex neighbourhood, dances at the Balmy Beach Club, Old City Hall (then just City Hall), the converted mansions on Jarvis Street, and some of the city’s seedier spots such as the Brown Derby Tavern at Yonge and Dundas. It’s a Toronto of which Batten clearly has fond memories.

Ross Mackay, the Saga of a Brilliant Criminal Lawyer is available on Amazon.


Jack Batten graduated from the University of Toronto Law School, class of 1957, but chose to make his living as a freelance writer. As well as countless magazine and newspaper articles, he has written more than 40 books, including seven crime novels and several biographies. He writes the Whodunnit review column for the Toronto Star.

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