Friday 1 November 2019

Forgotten Book - Skin for Skin

Skin for Skin by Winifred Duke was published by Gollancz in 1935, and it earned a rave review from another Gollancz author, no less an authority than Dorothy L. Sayers. Duke was an expert in true crime who also wrote fiction, and this novel is based very, very closely on the Wallace case. The names have been changed - Wallace becomes Bruce, Liverpool becomes Salchester, and so on - but Duke didn't deny that she was fictionalising very recent events. Wallace was convicted of murdering his wife in 1931, but the conviction was quashed on appeal. He did not, however, enjoy his freedom for long.

In this story, it is made clear from the outset that Bruce deliberately set about planning to murder his wife. Duke was at pains to emphasise that she was not suggesting that this meant she thought Wallace guilty (and thus "lucky to get away with it"), although it's hard to believe she'd have written this book in this way if she believed he was innocent. Her argument, in effect, was that she was trying to imagine what would have motivated him if he had indeed been guilty. This argument does raise ethical questions, although I think it's a legitimate piece of work. Indeed, as the title (taken from the Book of Job) suggests, this is a book with a moral.

The writing is plain, but very readable, and I raced through the story. Even though I'm very familiar with the Wallace case, I found myself gripped by Bruce's story. I have some reservations about the book, but I can see why Sayers admired it. It's a very lucid piece of work. Faction, you might call it.

My greatest reservations concern not Duke's writing, but her fictional premise. I struggle to believe that Wallace was guilty. This is a case which I've had the pleasure of discussing with two considerable authorities, P.D. James (who thought he was guilty, though previously she'd thought him innocent) and Roger Wilkes (who wrote an important book seeking to establish his innocence). Sayers also wrote about the case in detail, and I share her view that Wallace's psychological profile was not that of a murderer. Duke does a good job, in creative fiction terms, of trying to explain his motivation, on the premise that he did decide to kill his wife. But even though I enjoyed reading the book, and can recommend it, I'm still not convinced. I think Wallace was a wretchedly unlucky man, who suffered a terrible injustice.


Jonathan O said...

I agree about Wallace - P. D. James's argument for his guilt is very weak, as it requires us to believe that someone else made the famous phone call, as a prank, to make the appointment on the same day that Wallace killed his wife. In any case, it doesn't alter the fact that the evidence against Wallace was far too weak to justify the Guilty verdict (it appears that the jury had made up a story of how the crime occurred which bore no relation to any of the evidence).

By the way, I would guess that James was a supporter of the death penalty. It would be interesting to know if there is any connection between people's views on capital punishment and their opinion on supposed miscarriages of justice.

RodCrosby said...

In 2018, author Antony M. Brown surveyed all the published theories, both evidentially and logically, in his book Move to Murder, before concluding that, on balance, a previously-unpublished theory "is the best explanation for one of the most puzzling murder cases in British criminal history." The new theory, first posited in 2008 by Merseyside-based researcher Rod Stringer holds that Richard Gordon Parry was indeed the brains behind a robbery, which turned to murder when Parry’s unknown accomplice was confronted by Julia Wallace after rifling the cash-box – after first gaining entry to 29 Wolverton Street on the pretext he was “Qualtrough”.