The Telephone Call by John Rhode

The Telephone CallTrue Story – Liverpool, Monday 19th January, 1931, William Herbert Wallace was playing a chess match when he was handed a note containing a business opportunity for Wallace if he attends a certain address the following evening at 7:30pm – it was a phone message that had been received 25 minutes earlier, before Wallace arrived. Wallace attended that meeting, only to find that the address was a fake, and on returning, he found his wife brutally murdered. Or so he said… The police were convinced that the call was made by Wallace himself – and he never went to the meeting but murdered his wife instead…

This story – replace “Wallace” with “Ridgewell”, “Liverpool” with “Minchington” and “chess” with “billiards”. And of course, this time, the police force consists of Superintendent Jimmy Waghorn and his friend Dr Priestley.

The Wallace case was one that drew a lot of attention in its time, with at least three television versions being produced, with varying degrees of fictional elements, and various authors, in particular Dorothy L Sayers, were fascinated by it. Here, John Rhode takes the set-up of the original crime and spins a tale around those elements. It’s not an attempt to produce his own theory, as the only characters with real-life parallels are Ridgewell/Wallace and his wife (and arguably his neighbours), but instead takes the set-up to launch into his own tale – apparently he did a similar thing with the same case in Vegetable Duck (review coming soon-ish) but I haven’t read it yet..

It’s an interesting one – I’m not entirely sure what the point of using the real-life case was, given that this wasn’t an attempt to solve it (sorry, forgot to say, Wallace was cleared on appeal, but the real murderer was never found) and it would be easy to create a similar set-up. One of the other interesting elements is that Priestley barely shows up and when he does, he isn’t actually that helpful. This is Superintendent (not sure when he gets promoted) Waghorn’s tale, and he proves to be more that up to the task.

There are a few little quirks from the time the book was written – people took their money to bed with them for safety and women didn’t enter the parlour if they were alone in the house, for example.

The mystery is a nice teaser, although the plot is handicapped by the lack of suspects and the fact that the character of the victim is fairly important but is never discussed until very late in the narrative.And part of the motive is rather icky. But it’s one of Rhode’s more straightforward tales and is definitely Worth A Look.

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7 comments

  1. I’d never heard of that custom about a woman never entering the parlor if she was alone in the house. Do you happen to know the “reasoning” behind it?

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    • It’s not clear – it might just be a tradition of that particular household – the parlour was for meals so if the husband was out, there was no reason for her to be in it. The book makes a point of it being odd behaviour that needs to be explained in solving the murder, but I don’t recall if the oddness is raised by the investigators or the husband. Sorry.

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      • Thanks for your reply, anyway. No doubt, as these things go, I’ll be seeing this particular custom in the next four books I read…

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