Friday, 17 June 2011

Forgotten B0ok - The Telephone Call

My choice for today's Forgotten Book dates back to 1948. The Telephone Call by John Rhode is a sound example of crime fiction inspired by a real-life case. The case in question is one of the most celebrated true crime mysteries of the 20th century, the Wallace case. And it's a murder mystery that has long intrigued me, partly because it has so many fascinating aspects and partly because it occurred in Liverpool, a city I know well.

Dorothy L Sayers and Raymond Chandler were amongst those who are fascinated by the Wallace story and Sayers wrote about it at some length. There was a widespread (although by no means universal) consensus that Wallace did not murder his wife, although many years passed before diligent investigative journalism produced a plausible theory about an alternative culprit, whom it was impossible to bring to justice.

John Rhode apparently used elements from the Wallace story in an earlier novel, Vegetable Duck, which I have not yet read. The Telephone Call does, however, follow the real-life scenario quite closely. Rhode acknowledges in a note at the outset that "this story is based on a celebrated murder trial" although he hastens to insist that "his treatment of it and the solution he propound are entirely imaginary".

Most of the detective work in the novel is undertaken by Superintendent Jimmy Waghorn of Scotland Yard, but he finds it necessary to consult more than once Rhode's most famous amateur sleuth, Dr Lancelot Priestley. This is a soundly constructed novel with an interesting solution, although since that solution depends upon the character of the victim, and Rhode fails adequately to characterise her for most of the book, it falls short of excellence. In fact, in this respect it is a good example of the shortcomings of detective novels which focus heavily upon alibis rather than strong characterisation of the key players in the drama. Yet despite its failings, The Telephone Call is a good illustration of true crime rendered as fiction, and I certainly found it well worth reading.


aguja said...

Well commented! I have not read the book, but do agree about alibis etc. taking precedence over characterisation in crime novels. I think that it must be difficult to achieve both to pefection as the story is of the essence. I do find that is generally the case in crime novels that I have read; the exeptions are the 'icing on the cake'.

John said...

I've never come across a copy of this book. Did it have a different title in the US? I can always check Hubin. So many of Rhode's books just never show up over here even though Dodd Mead was his US publisher for most of his career.

Margot Kinberg said...

Martin - So often, fictionalised accounts of true crime stories fall flat. I'm glad that for you, this one didn't. And of course, the Wallace case really is fascinating...

vegetableduck said...


I believe the American title was "Shadow of an Alibi." I like "The Telephone Call" as a title myself--it has a faintly sinister edge (especially when combined with the Geoffrey Bles black and white jacket illustration of one of those splendid British telephone boxes).

Martin is right, the Wallace Case is fascinating. This was an enjoyable fictionalized take on it, though the Rhode novel "Vegetable Duck" (which also borrows elements of the Wallace Case, as mentioned above) is more ingenious.

By the way, a small publisher wants to reprint all the Rhode books but is being held up by lack of communication from the literary agency (a contract was supposed to eb signed in January, but nothing has come of it). I have been in contact with the heirs of the literary estate and they haven't heard from the agency either. So this has been very frustrating.

vegetableduck said...

If you look at abebooks, for example, only five copies of The Telephone Call are currently available, priced from $42 to $89 U.S. dollars (one copy of Shadow of an Alibi is available for $80 USD). Needless to say, it's not a situation conducive to casually interested readers!

A small publisher could make this book available for 15-20 USD in paperback, and cheaper than that if a kindle version were offered.