1. The Set Up
The year is 1931. King George V is on the throne and Ramsay MacDonald, the leader of the Labour Party, is in Downing Street. Britain has a population of 45 million, the average hourly wage is a shilling and a pint of ale costs a little less than that. Fewer than half of all homes have a radio, and regular television broadcasts from the BBC are still five years away. The economic slump that has swept the world like a virulent disease is at its worst, and Britain has not been spared. One out of every five adults has no job.
The place is Liverpool. The city's population is at an all-time high. Over 800,000 people are crammed into the teeming metropolis, most living in endless rows of back-to-back houses. Like many industrial cities of the North, it is taking the brunt of the depression. Poverty and deprivation stalk the subdued streets like a pack of wolves. In the west of the city is Anfield, a district synonymous with the ground of Liverpool Football Club, a middling team in the English First Division. Within this urban labyrinth is Wolverton Street, an unremarkable cul-de-sac, comprising two terraces of red brick houses, each with two polygonal bay windows, stacked upon each other.
Near the end of the street, on the left, is No. 29. It has a dark front door with a fanlight above. Its tall windows are veiled by thick, grimy net curtains. This is the home of William and Julia Wallace; it will be the scene of a murder, but this is not the place where our story begins. A little over 200 yards away, as the crow flies, northwest across the chimneys and roofs of similar houses in similar streets, a confluence of three major roads forms a triangle of land bordered by well-tended flower beds. At its apex, standing like an idle sentry at the end of Lower Breck Road, is a telephone box. Although telephone boxes are still a novelty, there is nothing special about this particular one - it has cream concrete walls, a pyramidal roof, and a glass-panelled green door with the sign 'Public Telephone. Open Always'.
The date is Monday 19 January. In the chilly morning, the sleeping city comes alive: men in heavy coats and boots tramp their way across the cold cobblestones; trams whine as they plough through the streets, ferrying workers to factories and offices; and drivers of throaty motor cars honk their horns amidst the echo of clopping hooves and jangling reins. A solitary steamer glides eerily down the River Mersey like a ghost ship. Not so long ago there would have been a flotilla of cargo-laden vessels jostling for a berth. That was before the Depression. Yet, like wildebeest returning to a dried-up waterhole, dockers in their thousands continue to arrive at the docks in the hope of finding work, or to report for the dole.
During the day a persistent drizzle turns to sleet. Everything feels cold, damp and dreary. The weather does not improve as the grey skies darken and the day slides into the evening gloom. The humdrum of daily routines continues. Across the city, lampmen light up the streets and workers begin to think about the trudge home. The school day is over and hundreds of grubby-faced and dishevelled children fill the streets, playing kick-about and hopscotch. The older ones begin their rounds of delivering milk and The Liverpool Evening Echo to doorsteps.
Night falls. In countless houses, matches are struck to light fires and gas lamps, and housewives cook dinner on the range while their husbands read a newspaper unfurled across the kitchen table. The Times carries a brief report that, for the first time, Germany is exporting more goods than Britain. For the head-shaking middle class, the statistic is an unwelcome reminder that an empire is waning. The working class are already more intimately acquainted with its effects: they face the hardship wrought by unemployment and the social decay fathered by it. But our story is not a social-economic commentary. It is about life and death.
The time is 7:15pm. A man in a long overcoat and grey hat walks along Lower Breck Road, his breath condensing in the night air. Fighting the cold and the sleet, he keeps his chin tucked into his upturned collar and hands thrust into his coat pockets. He moves briskly through the dappled shadows, his gaze downward. The sound of his heels snapping sharply on the pavement is the only conspicuous sign of his presence. As he passes under the diffused spotlight of a gas lamp, his figure is illuminated fleetingly, but his hat and coat collar hide his features, and then he is lost again to the darkness. We never glimpse his face; his identity forever veiled in doubt.
He soon reaches his destination. Without looking up, he pulls open the glass-panelled door and steps inside, the icy chill joining him in the telephone box. He closes the door and stands motionless in the gloom, the only lighting from a nearby street lamp. He taps the interior light bulb above his head, but to no avail. He rummages for coins in his trouser pockets, and pushes two pennies into the slot at the top of the metal coin box. He unhooks the trumpet-shaped earpiece and presses it to his ear. As soon he hears the change in tone in the receiver, he learns towards the mouthpiece mounted above the box.
"Operator, connect me to Bank 3581," he instructs assertively. A pause. The line crackles.
"Connecting you now, sir," is the distant reply. The caller hears the ringing tone and pushes a button on the box, depositing the coins. He waits for his call to be answered at the City Café in central Liverpool.
It is about to trigger a series of events that will soon result in a brutal murder.
* * *
The murder of Julia Wallace in January 1931 remains unsolved to this day. She was bludgeoned to death in an apparently motiveless and frenzied attack. Her husband William stood trial for her murder, and was found guilty, only for the verdict to be quashed on appeal. No one else was arrested, let alone brought to trial. The case quickly went cold, but it has never been forgotten; criminologists and crime writers are drawn to this tantalising whodunit like fish to a brightly coloured lure.
Continued in the book Move to Murder published New Era of Communications.
Paperback published on 6 January 2022.
First edition published by Mirror Books (ISBN: 978-1907324734)