October 29, 2013

PD James says she’s solved “the impossible murder”


In an article for the Sunday Times Magazine, bad-ass 93-year-old author PD James says she has solved a famous cold case that Raymond Chandler called “the impossible murder.” Known as the Wallace Case, and featured in a television drama, The Man from the Pru, James says this murder “compares only to the Ripper murders in 1888 in the amount of writing, both fiction and non-fiction, which it has created.”

Here is what we know for sure: Julia Wallace was murdered on January 20, 1931. Her husband W.H. Wallace, an insurance salesman for the Prudential, was at the Central Chess Club in Liverpool the night before her murder. He received a phone message from someone called R.M. Qualtrough, who asked him to meet at 25 Menlove Gardens East for insurance business the next day.

Menlove Gardens North, South and West must be easy enough to find, but Menlove Gardens East does not exist. After forty-five minutes of searching the cold streets, speaking with bystanders and police officers who did not recognize the address, Wallace returned home without the account. In court, Wallace said he opened the door and found his wife bludgeoned to death. He was arrested for her murder in February and found guilty by jury in roughly an hour.

Though he was sentenced to death by hanging, the court overturned this decision due to insufficient evidence later that year. “This murder, I should imagine, must be almost unexampled in the annals of crime . . . murder so devised and arranged that nothing remains which will point to anyone as the murderer,” said the judge who presided over this case, Mr. Justice Wright.

This was the first instance in British legal history where an appeal had been allowed after re-examination of evidence. And it’s no wonder the mystery inspired so many books: there were no witnesses; there was no weapon; there was no motive, as far as anyone could see.

The telephone booth where the Qualtrough call was placed

Unless James has solved it this week. The author says the Qualtrough call was not made up by Wallace to serve as his alibi — instead, it was a “sick and malicious joke” by Wallace’s former coworker, Richard Gordon Parry. Wallace had turned Parry in for “fiddling the books at the Prudential,” according to the Guardian, and as a result Parry had been fired. Parry made up a valuable deal and a fictional address, then called the chess club from a telephone booth only four hundred feet from Wallace’s apartment.

“The Qualtrough call was the first step in Parry’s plan to send an ageing and sick man travelling through the cold winter’s night in the hope of an important commission, only for him to realise after making a double futile journey, that an enemy was laughing at him for being a fool,” she wrote in the Sunday Times. “Perhaps when [Wallace] struck the first tremendous blow that killed her, and the ten afterwards delivered with such force, it was years of striving and constant disappointment that he was obliterating.”

The Wallace case is echoed in one of James’s novels, The Skull Beneath the Skin (1982). And James referenced it directly in The Murder Room (2003) when her character Conrad Ackroyd mused, “Still unsolved, fascinating its permutations absolutely typical of the 1930s. Couldn’t have happened at any other time, not in precisely the way it did happen… What is interesting is that the evidence, such as it was, could support either the prosecution or the defence depending on how you chose to look at it.”


Kirsten Reach is an editor at Melville House.