The Telephone Call (John Rhode)

  • By John Rhode
  • First published: UK: Geoffrey Bles, 1948; US: Dodd, Mead, 1949, as Shadow of an Alibi

Rhode - The Telephone Call.jpg

Rating: 1.5 out of 5.

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

Illustrated London News (K. John, 14th August 1948): The Telephone Call, by John Rhode, adds a fictitious setting and a solution to a real murder case. The Ridgewells – so Mr. Ridgewell says – are all in all to each other; they have no acquaintances, and want none. He, when not engaged in selling things by hire-purchase, is wrapped up in the Stoic philosophy; her leanings are artistic; sometimes he reads aloud to her, or they pass the evenings with a little music. It sounds ideal; yet when Mrs. Ridgewell is discovered weltering in her blood, the stoical though shattered husband is the prime suspect. He is supposed to have been decoyed away that evening by a telephone message – but he could have sent it himself. However, Jimmy Waghorn feels that he may be innocent; only who else can have done it? Who indeed? – the book has almost no characters, so one can hardly fail to guess right.

The Scotsman (19th August 1948): In The Telephone Call John Rhode takes a murder in which all the signs suggest it has been committed by the husband of the dead woman. This seems the only possible solution to everyone except the Scotland Yard detective who patiently sifts the small volume of evidence until he finds first a motive for the crime and then the murderer. With a murder committed “off stage” and only three possible suspects, Mr. Rhode makes the most of his material. The deduction is cool and logical and the solution satisfying.

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.

The Sphere (Vernon Fane, 18th September 1948): Mr. John Rhode’s The Telephone Call has its merits too, though I thought it suffered from the author’s choice of an insistently dull background.

The Montrose Review (1st October 1948): Fictional sleuths invariably owe their success to methods that are the opposite of orthodox. In real life, however, the solving of a crime, be it murder or something less serious, is usually the result of persistent and painstaking investigation. The truth of this is underlined by John Rhodes [sic] in The Telephone Call. The victim of a particularly brutal killing is a woman, and for long her husband is the principal suspect. The police, however, are the first to admit that the superficial facts can be used to prove the husband’s innocence as well as his guilt, and it is some time before they uncover the clue that leads them to the correct solution. This novel. which is based on a celebrated murder trial, is a superlative example of the straight-forward detective story.

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.

Chicago Sun (James Sandoe, 25th February 1949, 320w)

NY Times (27th February 1949, 110w)

San Francisco Chronicle (E.D. Doyle, 13th March 1949, 80w)

A Catalogue of Crime (Barzun & Taylor, 1989): A first-rate reconstruction of the Wallace case. When Rhode has a start on the situation – i.e., does not have to clothe it himself with human detail – he does an excellent job. And his mastery of physical fact is here admirably applied, leading to a very plausible outcome. Hors concours, gold medal.