The Killing of Julia Wallace
Jonathan Goodman (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1969)
323 p. First reading.
Is there something morally suspect about the “true crime” genre? I have sometimes thought so. Taking an interest in the details of real-life murders seems akin to taking an interest in car accidents: one gazes with fascination at a scene of horror. On the other hand, I have no such objections to murder mysteries and detective fiction, mostly, I believe, because their focus usually falls not on the crime, but on dispensing justice to the criminal. Perhaps the same characteristic, when present, can redeem accounts of true crime as well.
Jonathan Goodman’s book falls on the fair side of the divide. Of necessity it dwells at considerable length on the details of a murder, but all in the service of solving the case — something that had, until this book was written, proved elusive.
I am told that the Wallace case is one of the most famous in the annals of crime and detection. The facts are briefly as follows: On the evening of 20 January 1931, Julia Wallace was brutally murdered in the sitting room of her home in Liverpool. Her husband, William Herbert Wallace, was charged and convicted of the crime, but his conviction was overturned on grounds of insufficient evidence. No-one else was ever charged. Jonathan Goodman’s purpose in this book is to carefully review all of the available evidence. In so doing, he convincingly exonerates Wallace, and proposes a compelling alternate theory of the murderer’s identity.
The circumstances surrounding the murder are worthy of a Hollywood thriller: a mysterious phone call, doors that seem to unlock themselves, a missing murder weapon, an apparent robbery, and — at least on the theory that Wallace committed the crime — a severely restricted time-frame. Some have said that the case is remarkable principally because each piece of evidence can point two ways, either toward Wallace or away from him. Goodman shows that this view of the case is false. It is true that much of the evidence has this quality, but some of it does not, and the latter category consistently points to Wallace’s innocence. It was for this reason that it was suppressed by the police and the prosecution.
Indeed, maybe the most instructive thing about the Wallace case is how it illustrates the many ways in which a miscarriage of justice can occur. The police immediately suspected Wallace of the murder, and did not seriously pursue other theories of the crime. They botched their forensic analysis of the crime scene. The prosecution did not call on witnesses whose testimony would have tended to exonerate Wallace. Jurors were drawn from the Liverpool area where sensational rumours prejudicial to Wallace had been circulating, and the jury returned a guilty verdict — and a death sentence — with minimal deliberation. As I said, this verdict was later overturned on appeal, not because of a technicality or because new evidence was presented, but simply because the available evidence failed to support the verdict — in other words, the jury was wrong.
At the end of the book Goodman presents an alternative theory of the murderer’s identity, and he may very well be right. Certainly the case he makes is much stronger than that made against Wallace. The Wikipedia page gives more details.
I first heard of Julia Wallace, and of this book, in the writings of Jacques Barzun. I thank him, wherever he is, for introducing me to this very interesting case.