Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Friday, October 28, 2016


Sorry. Wrong Number by Allan Ullman and Lucille Fletcher (1948)

It's 9:30 at night and Leona Stevenson is alone and worried.  Her husband had promised to be home by 6:00 but had not yet arrived, nor had she heard from him.  Her constant calls to his office have been met with busy signals, indicating that someone was at the office.  Or, perhaps, that there was something wrong with the phone line.   Leona calls the operator to have her try the number from her end.  That's when her nightmare really starts.

The operator makes the connection.  There's a voice on the other end.  Leona doesn't recognize the voice.  And then there's another voice.  She asks who is it one the line, but neither person can hear her.  Somehow the telephone lives had been crossed and Leona is the unwilling witness to a murder plot.  The men are discussing the murder of a woman at exactly 11:15 that evening -- that's when the noise of a passing train will disguise the killer's entry to the home through a kitchen window.  A woman, alone in the house, is to be murdered.  Whoever hired these men did not want the woman to suffer, Leona heard, the job was to be done quickly with a knife.  The killer would then take some jewels from the home to give the appearance of a robbery.  The conversation is then cut off before Leona could learn the name of the victim or her address.

Leona -- rich, spoiled, imperious, and a hypochondriac -- is a semi-invalid with a heart condition.  What can she do?  She tries the telephone company but they are not able to tell her where the call came from.  The police log in the information but can do nothing with the flimsy information given.  No one is able to help her.  She's not even sure that anyone believes her.

Slowly, as the evening progresses to 11:15 -- over a series of phone calls -- Leona begins to learn that her doting husband may not be the man she thinks he is.  Slowly she begins to climb out of layers of denial to suspect that she herself might be the intended victim.

The clock, and the novel, continue its claustrophobic advance to the fatal time.

Sorry, Wrong Number began as a radio play on the May 25, 1943 episode of Suspense.  It was reprised seven times between then and 1960, with Agnes Morehead starring each time.  Orson Welles called it the greatest single radio script ever written.  Fletcher adapted it for the 1948 film version starring Barbara Stanwyck and Burt Lancaster.  Stanwyck received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress for her role.  A 1959 adaptation of the play won an Edgar award for Best Drama.

While the story is certainly not forgotten and while the play's theme had been repeated with various twists over the years, the novel adapted from the play is less known.  Lucille Fletcher (1912-2000) was a well-known author of radio plays.  She had two daughters from her first husband, the composer Bernard Hermann; her second husband was the novelist and playwright  Douglass Wallop (The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant/Damn Yankees).  Sorry, Wrong Number was the first of ten novels she would write.  Allan Ullman (1908-1982) was a promotional director at Random House and novelized several thrillers based on screenplays.  He went on to become an executive of the Book-of-the-Month Club and head of The New York Times book and education division.  He co-wrote one other book with Fletcher and also published under the name "Sandy Alan"

Robert Arthur included Sorry, Wrong Number in his 1965 ghost-edited anthology Alfred Hitchcock presents:  Stories Not for the Nervous.  As far as I can tell, this has been the last time the book was reprinted.

A tight, fast, and suspenseful read

1 comment:

  1. I read SORRY, WRONG NUMBER way back when. I remember it being absolutely gripping!