P.D. James' reassessment of the Wallace case, which I posted about yesterday, is one of the most exciting pieces of "true crime" writing I've read for a long time. And so I thought I'd make a few more points, again in the hope of stimulating debate among those who find the Wallace mystery as intriguing as I do.
For a start, I'm really pleased that this admirable writer, whose The Maul and The Pear-Tree (co-written with T.A. Critchley) is a very good book about a nineteenth century case, has turned again to a historical puzzle.There is a long and rather splendid tradition of crime novelists taking an interest in real life cases and I'm pleased to see from this essay that the Queen of Crime is on top form. Not that, after her very enjoyable paper about the Golden Age at St Hilda's a couple of months back, I had any doubt about that.
I would like to think that this stylish and ingenious essay will kick-start a revival of interest in classic murder cases. They were in vogue again about 20 years ago, but with a few notable exceptions (above all, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher) the trend in "true crime" writing has seemed to be rather downmarket, with a number of lurid books about gangsters and the Mafia that prioritised sensation rather than quality.
As regards Wallace, I'm still mulling over P.D. James' arguments, but on the whole I side with the "Wallace was innocent" campaign. I don't attach much importance, for instance, to the fact that the presumed killer's ex-girlfriend said late in life that she didn't believe he was a murderer. There could be various reasons why she said that. Most important, though, is Wallace's psychological profile. Does it suggest a murderer? (Or someone who would dress up as his wife in order to create confusion about the time of death?) Well, we are all capable of unexpected behaviour, but I don't see him as a man who could commit such a crime and then maintain a resolute protestation of innocence until he died. He might have been an insurance salesman (and a former political agent) but I don't know of any evidence suggesting he was capable of sustained dishonesty, let alone violence. The alternative suspect, Parry, on the other hand, had a criminal record, albeit for comparatively minor offences.
One thing is for sure. As the never-ending debate about Jack the Ripper shows, these classic cases are never closed. There's always the chance that some fresh and plausible theory will crop up. And that explains the enduring appeal of true crime writing.