A Solution to the ‘Perfect Murder’? P. D. James and the Case of Julia Wallace
At the end of last month, The Sunday Times proclaimed that the crime novelist P. D. James had found a solution to the murder of Julia Wallace, an unsolved case from early 1931 that has sometimes been dubbed the ‘perfect murder’. James herself was rather more modest, admitting that her interpretation of events can never be proved to be the definitive one, and noting that she was following in the footsteps of a number of eminent commentators, including the detective novelist Dorothy L. Sayers.
I’m currently writing a book about fictional and factual crime writing in interwar Britain, and have studied a good deal of the contemporary commentary on the case, including Sayers’s two essays, one published in the Evening Standard newspaper in 1934, the other, much longer and more detailed, which appeared in The Anatomy of Murder (1936), a collection of essays on true crimes by detective novelists. As James notes in her article, part of what drew both her and Sayers to the Wallace case is that the sequence of events that emerged seemed like something that might happen in a detective novel. Indeed, reporting on the case shortly after the discovery of Julia Wallace’s body in the front parlour of 29 Wolverton Street, Anfield, the local evening paper, the Liverpool Echo, made the same comparison: ‘The facts, such as they are, when assembled might be the fanciful conjectures of one of those writers of detective fiction.’
Julia was the wife of William Wallace, a door-to-door insurance salesman. The evening before her death, he had travelled into Liverpool city centre to attend his chess club, and when he arrived, a message was waiting for him: a Mr R. M. Qualtrough had phoned, asking Wallace to come and visit him the next evening at his home in Menlove Gardens East, to discuss the possible purchase of a policy. Having debated with his chess club friends whether to keep this odd appointment – he was unsure where Menlove Gardens East might be – the next evening Wallace set off from home, heading by tram towards Queen’s Drive, hoping to find Mr Qualtrough’s street somewhere near Menlove Avenue. But, after asking the way several times, Wallace was eventually forced to return home, having discovered that although there were roads called Menlove Gardens North, South and West, Menlove Gardens East was a fiction.
Arriving back at Wolverton Street, Wallace was in alleyway that ran along the back of the houses when he met his neighbours, who were on their way out, and told them that he was worried because he was unable to get into the house. They went into the yard with him, and this time, he was able to open the back door; entering the property, he found his wife’s body; she had been beaten about the head.
Before long, Wallace was arrested and charged with his wife’s murder. At the trial, in April 1931, he was found guilty, only to be released on appeal. He moved away from Liverpool and died two years later. The calm demeanour that he had maintained from the discovery of the body and throughout the trial told against him; as Dorothy L. Sayers noted, he did not behave in the way that bereaved husbands were expected to behave.
Writing shortly after Wallace’s death, Sayers, like P. D. James after her, focused on the unusual nature of Wallace’s alibi. Wallace claimed to have been tricked out of the house by the phone message from Qualtrough, leaving the way clear for Qualtrough to commit the murder. (The Liverpool police identified and questioned a number of people with the surname ‘Qualtrough’ but were unable to connect any of them to the crime.) The phone call to the chess club was traced to a public box near enough to the Wallace’s house for Wallace to have placed the call himself on his way to the club, thus providing his own alibi, although the man who took the message at the club was sure that the voice he heard was not Wallace’s. Another theory was that Wallace and Qualtrough were in league with each other, with Qualtrough making the call in order to provide an alibi for Wallace. But as Sayers points out, no satisfactory motive for Wallace or indeed anyone else killing Julia was ever uncovered.
Sayers considers how the case might be approached by a detective novelist, suggesting, for instance, that a phone call with such contrary possible interpretations is the sort of narrative device a detective novelist might use, but also noting that particular pieces of information that the novelist might think of as crucially important, were missing or not available. Two witnesses who apparently saw Julia after her husband had left the house that evening, the boy who delivered the milk and the paper girl, were both deemed unreliable, and Sayers wryly comments that witnesses in fiction can almost always remember the time and other details with complete accuracy when necessary. James is also interested in this aspect of Wallace’s alibi, and suggests that rather than handing the milk over to Julia, the delivery boy might have been tricked, and that the person the boy thought was Julia could in fact have been Wallace himself, disguised as his wife.
This novel, if, I have to say, not especially convincing suggestion, is one element of a reading of the crime in which James uncouples the two key elements: the phone call that got Wallace out of the house and the murder itself. Rather than seeing the phone call as a planned pretext for the murder, James suggests that the phone call was intended as a practical joke, and that it was only after receiving the message from Qualtrough that Wallace decided to use it as an alibi. I think it’s James thinking like a detective writer, rather than any hard evidence, that leads her to this conclusion, although in her article, she goes on to suggest that it fits with what is known about Richard Gordon Parry, who, in the early 1980s was identified by Liverpool journalist Roger Wilkes as the most likely suspect for both the phone call and the murder.
Sayers, meanwhile, refrained from drawing any definitive conclusions about the case, although she indicated that she believed Wallace to be innocent. As James points out, several other authors, since Sayers, have presented their own interpretations of the case, and James’s article is very unlikely to be the final word. Gaps in the narrative will always remain; motives and feelings can only be guessed at and remain opaque. The murder of Julia Wallace might on the surface seem ‘like something out of a novel’, but as the writings of Sayers, James and others have shown, brute reality refuses to abide by the reassuring pattern of cause, effect and solution that detective fiction promises.