The murder of Julia Wallace in Liverpool in 1931 has fascinated people for over eighty years. Raymond Chandler was one of many crime novelists who was puzzled as to where the truth lay. Dorothy L. Sayers and John Dickson Carr were among the others, and Sayers wrote an important essay about the case, included in the Detection Club book Anatomy of Murder. John Rhode wrote two novels which drew on aspects of the case, and more recently John Hutton wrote an excellent novel inspired by it. Now it is the turn of Sayers' admirer P.D.James, herself a doyenne of the Detection Club, to investigate - and the outcome of her own detective work has appeared in The Sunday Times today.
First, a brief recap on the main facts. William Herbert Wallace was a middle aged, respectable and apparently happily married insurance agent who received a telephone message at the Chess Club where he played, from a prospective new client, R.M. Qualtrough. Wallace was asked to call at Qualtrough's home the following evening. He duly et out, but the address given to him did not exist. When he returned home, he found his wife dead. She had been battered to death. Wallace was found guilty and sentenced to death, but reprieved on appeal. However, he died not long after being released from prison.
Research undertaken by Jonathan Goodman and Roger Wilkes seemed to establish that the actual killer was a man called Parry.However,P.D.James has cast doubt on this conclusion. To follow her detailed reasoning, one has to read her essay very carefully(and it is behind a paywall). I think it's a truly fascinating piece of work.
The question she has presented us with is this - was Wallace in fact guilty, after all? She thinks he was. I think it's marvellous that she has reinvestigated the case, and her essay is intensely readable, as you would expect. Even for those who are not true crime fans, it's an engrossing mystery. I want to reflect on P.D. James' arguments before coming to any conclusions - that's the lawyer in me, I guess! - but I must say that my instinctive view is that I still believe Wallace was innocent. Anthony Berkeley said of the Crippen case (I'm paraphrasing, but only slightly) that a man "does not become a fiend overnight", and I think he was right. The psychological profile of Wallace doesn't seem to me to be that of a murderer, and there are one or two other aspects of the latest theory that don't instantly convince me. But - the debate is now reopened, and I would be extremely interested to know what others think about this enduring and extraordinary puzzle.