In this four-part series, Paste reviews the detection skills of authors who attempted to solve real-life mysteries, and the verdicts are largely grim. We may never know who committed some infamous crimes, but these writers are often guilty of whipping up theories that make real life read like bad fiction.
In this installment, P.D. James, author of the Adam Dalgliesh mysteries, tackles one of the most baffling crimes in British history. Peering into the complex alibi at the heart of the case, James
sees a joke that doesn’t truly solve it.
The Case of the Groaner of a Plot Twist
“Detective”: P.D. James
Resume: Author of the bestselling Adam Dalgliesh mysteries.
Case: The Julia Wallace murder, Liverpool, England, 1931.
Solution: The husband did it, but his clever alibi was pure coincidence.
Verdict: You’d probably beat her at Clue.
The mystifying killing of Julia Wallace occurred during the Golden Age of English murder mysteries. A chess-playing suspect with a strange alibi attracted many mystery authors’ scrutiny as the villain of a supposedly perfect crime.
Julia was the reclusive wife of William Wallace, an insurance agent and amateur scientist. The night before her murder, William attended a meeting of his chess club. Upon his arrival, he was given a phone message left by an unfamiliar man asking to meet him the following night at a certain address to talk about insurance. The police later traced the call to a public phone near the Wallace home.
The following night, William made the requested insurance trip only to find that the address did not exist. After asking several people for directions, he returned home and attracted the neighbors’ attention by complaining the doors were bolted shut. When they finally gained entry to the house, they found Julia beaten to death.
A bloody raincoat belonging to William was found near the body. Yet the police found no murder weapon, and there was no known motive for William or anyone else to kill Julia.
The police believed William did it. In their version of events, William made the mysterious phone call himself, then feigned asking directions to establish an alibi. He wore the raincoat while killing Julia so he could quickly leave on his “insurance” trip without being covered in blood.
William, however, claimed the real killer made the goose-chase phone call to get him out of the house.
The case hinged on whether William had time to commit murder between known sightings of him elsewhere. Police officers had pulled it off in reenactments, but the defense noted William, over 50 years old and in poor health, could not walk as quickly as the officers.
A court convicted William and sentenced him to hang, but the appeals court threw out the conviction. No one else was ever charged.
Unknown to the public, the police had another suspect: Richard Gordon Parry, William’s former coworker with a history of theft. Parry had visited the Wallace home and knew about William’s chess club. Decades later, journalists unearthed claims that Parry’s alibi was blown and that he was seen with a bloody glove the night of the crime. None of this was proven before Parry’s death.
Many mystery authors commented on the case. The great Dorothy L. Sayers wrote essays about it, leaning toward William’s guilt, but mostly remarking on the ambiguity of the evidence.
Enter esteemed mystery novelist P.D. James, who claimed in a much-hyped London Sunday Times Magazine essay two months ago that she had solved the case. She said William indeed killed his wife, but Parry made the phone call as a prank. Already plotting murder and seeing through the prank call, William seized it as the perfect alibi.
James’s entire evidence for this theory is a hunch she had three years ago. While admitting “no rational person would believe” the coincidence and the case must be considered officially “unsolved,” James believes she’s correct with “absolute conviction.”
Unsurprisingly, the only result of P.D. James’s theory is to make the crime sound even more like a P.D. James novel.
Part 1 features Patricia Cornwell’s attempt to identify Jack the Ripper. Edgar Allan Poe rants about a murder suspect in Part 2, and Arthur Conan Doyle tackles pony-slashing and fairies in Part 4.