“Say, I forgot to ask you, George. Is a knife okay?”
“Okay,” the nasal voice of George said flatly. “But make it quick. Our client does not wish to make her suffer long.”
New York City is one of the biggest cities in the world. For wealthy invalid Leona Stevenson it’s a very small one, consisting entirely of her bed and a telephone. Unexpectedly left alone one evening, she tries to reach her husband at the office. Instead, she overhears two strangers plotting a murder.
Over the next few hours the bedridden Leona works frantically to save the unknown victim, but no one seems able to help her. Then she comes to realize that the intended victim is her.
Sorry, Wrong Number is a taut, lean thriller based on Lucille Fletcher’s 1943 radio play. Allan Ullman novelized several of Fletcher’s plays before she began writing novels herself in the 1950s. Although produced to capitalize on the 1948 film adaptation, this novel version hews more closely to the play, including its unbearably tense original ending, which was toned down for the movie.
The novel takes place in real time, between 9:30 and 11:15 pm, with chapter headings ticking down the ever-shrinking number of minutes remaining before the killer strikes. The time element adds an even greater sense of urgency to an already tense story. Sorry, Wrong Number is a stellar example of a short book that uses brevity to its advantage without sacrificing depth of plot or character. If anything, the crime is maybe a little too complicated. A lot of contrivance is needed for Leona to gather the specific information she needs by phone in a brief timeframe.
Leona Stevenson is a paradoxical character; though she’s not at all sympathetic, the reader becomes hugely invested in her struggle to remain alive. The spoiled daughter of a millionaire, Leona grew up believing anything she wanted was hers for the taking—including a husband. Poor but ambitious Henry Stevenson was in love with her college roommate when Leona took a fancy to him. Ten years later, Leona hasn’t grown up a bit. She’s still a spoiled and querulous child, battling hysterical illnesses and fretting over her waning beauty, trying to snatch love and security through a telephone wire.
It would be unbearable to spend even one minute in a room with Leona. Yet her stubborn selfishness is put to good use on behalf of a potential murder victim, as she is willing to go to great lengths to save the life of (as she believes at the time) a complete stranger. As the narrative proceeds, Leona’s entire world collapses around her. She is still an irritating and ridiculous person. She is also frightened and helpless.
Now everything around her began to rasp her nerves. The dimly lit room, so richly, so splendidly furnished, became a hateful cocoon from which there was no escape. The expensive array of jars and bottles, boxes and atomizers, glowing dully on the vanity again the wall reminded her only of her ebbing beauty. The plumply upholstered chaise longue, the chairs and gayly covered little benches, the daintily painted boudoir tables—all planted in ankle-deep gray carpeting that matched the walls—looked as though they had been set there by an unimaginative stagehand. The room had no life. It was a cell. The bright chintz drapes and gently moving curtains that framed the windows might as well have been iron bars. She despised the place. She despised her inability to cope with loneliness.
Subversively, we are being asked to understand and even root for the kind of self-important society matron who, in a more typical mystery, would be bumped off unmourned in the first chapter. The reader sees all of Leona’s bad qualities, but also the factors that helped make her that way. It’s hard to be kind and humble when the man you love responds to your first kiss by saying, “I’ve always wanted to kiss a million dollars.”
Leona does have a few virtues, but even these—her intelligence, self-confidence, and determination—are seen as vices because she’s a woman. If Leona were a strong-willed, capable man who knows what he wants and takes it, she would be respected by the society she lives in. We know that because just such a man is present in the novel, Leona’s powerful father, who could save his daughter but doesn’t take her seriously. For all her posturing, Leona is dependent on men for her very life, and they let her down every time.
It is precisely this sense of entitlement without any real power behind it that makes Leona so annoying to everyone around her. According to her daughter, Lucille Fletcher based the character on a rude, mink-clad woman she encountered in the grocery store one day. Fletcher and Ullman’s achievement is to humanize that rude stranger without softening her a bit. What remains is a real person, lying alone in the dark, waiting to die.
The novelization of Sorry, Wrong Number is out of print. The original radio play can be heard on youtube and archive.org.