The Telephone Call (John Rhode)

By John Rhode

First published: UK, Bles, 1948; US, Dodd Mead, as Shadow of an Alibi

My review

Rhode - The Telephone Call.jpg

This is the famous reconstruction of the Wallace case.  Julia Wallace was found dead by her husband, who had been called away on a wild-goose chase by a telephone call apparently from a client.  Wallace’s lack of alibi made him the prime suspect, but the case was never solved.

Rhode’s murder of Mrs. Julia Ridgewell follows similar lines.  The mystery is solved not by Dr. Priestley, who appears a third through and contributes nothing but padding, but by Jimmy Waghorn, keen and intelligent as usual.  He follows some first-class physical clues.  The case rests on circumstantial evidence. “Isn’t it odd how the investigation of this case hangs upon what appears to be the merest trifles?” This despite the incompetent police surgeon’s efforts to muck up the possibly vital clue of the scullery sink; and the biased policeman who, following Inspector Lestrade’s noble philosophy, turns every clue into a case against the husband, .

The lower middle-class background is well touched in, with a grimmer atmosphere than usual with Rhode, whose usual atmosphere of optimistic villagery is missing, replaced with near-poverty and depression.

Characterisation is good, if grim. The prime suspect husband, who follows the philosophy of Marcus Aurelius (and thankfully not that of his son Commodus), is a fine character, as are his wife and her cousin. Possible impotence is discussed as a motive, and the loveless marriage and sexual affair are both, so far as I know, touched in with a delicacy unusual in Rhode’s work.

The book, however, is stodgy, lifeless, and padded, filled with long analyses of suspects’ movements and pointless interrogations. Rhode’s customary flashes of understated humour are absent ; and there is virtually no excitement in the book.  The reader is likely to have tumbled to the murderer’s identity several chapters before it’s revealed. The solution is not particularly ingenious, although the humanity of the lengthy confession makes up for this to some degree.

Contemporary reviews

Observer (Maurice Richardson, 29th August 1948):

Now for some old friends.  In The Telephone Call John Rhode reconstructs a particularly baffling North of England murder case.  Dr. Priestley’s solution is perfectly satisfactory—of course—but it introduces extraneous elements.  A good one, this, for the court-case connoisseur.

New Yorker (12th February 1949, 120w):

The details, though not the solution, are, possibly by coincidence, the same as those of a Liverpool cause célèbre—the Wallace case, in 1931…  Mr. Rhode’s contribution to the literature of the affair is, regrettably, on the dull side.

The Saturday Review (19 February 1949):

Salesman called off on wild-goose chase returns to find wife slain and himself chief suspect.  Dr. Priestly settles that.  Typical Rhodesian exercise in deduction—this time with slightly more pungency than usual—due possibly to factual basis of “perfect crime”.  Very good.

NY Herald Tribune Wkly Bk R (Will Cuppy, 20th February 1949, 130w):

Here is a Grade A puzzle…  Fine guessing game for stand-pat jig-saw fans.