THE FOUR JUST MEN (1905) by Edgar Wallace

Wallace-Four-Just-Men-panEdgar Wallace made a real splash with his debut novel, though perhaps not quite the kind that he had intended. Originally promoted with the offer of a huge prize for anyone who guessed the ending, Wallace eventually had to declare bankruptcy as too many people guessed correctly and the improvident author had failed to limit the number of potential winners. It remains one of his best-known – but how does this locked room mystery hold up today?

I offer this review as part of Bev’s 2013 Vintage Mystery Challenge in the ‘Murder by the Numbers’ category; the 2013 Book to Movie Challenge at the Doing Dewey blog – for links click here; and Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme over at her fab Pattinase blog.

“… we kill for justice, which lifts us out of the ruck of professional slayers”

When this book was published anarchists and revolutionaries were, according to the yellow press, hiding behind almost every sofa plotting the downfall of Western society – this was during the lead up to the First World War and the overthrow of the Tsar of Russia, a time of great instability and fear in Europe. In 1907 Conrad published his classic take on the subject, The Secret Agent (review coming to Fedora soon), based on the Greenwich bombing of 1894, and four years later came the Sydney Street Siege. The fact is though that socialists, Suffragettes and even union organisers campaigning for the 8-hour working day were often lumped together with terrorist groups, in part following tragic event like the ‘Haymarket Affair’ in Chicago, when a bomb was launched during a rally for worker’s rights. It is in this context that journalist and wannabe author Edgar Wallace (1875-1932) crafted a story that exploited these fears but which, perhaps daringly, also sought to suggest that such people might even be considered heroes.

“The Bill that you are about to pass into law is an unjust one … it grieves us to warn you that unless your Government withdraws this Bill it will be necessary to remove you, and not alone you, but any other person undertakes to carry into law this unjust measure”

Wallace-Four-Just-Men-pan2When the novel begins the Four Just Men (FJM) are already notorious after carrying out more than a dozen assassinations over the previous five years, bumping off important people who they believe deserved to die but were beyond the reach of the law. At present the group is made up of anthropologist Leon Gonsalez, artist George Manfred and the chemist Poiccart, while a new and expendable recruit, Miguel Therry, a criminal with special skills, has been temporarily drafted in after the death of the original fourth Just Man (there are in fact no women of any importance in this story). The original three are independently wealthy and suffered some (unspecified) form of injustice so extreme that they now feel enabled to dispense fatal retribution.

“You and I and Poiccart and Gonsalez will kill this unjust man in a way that the world will never guess – such an execution as shall appal mankind. A swift death, a sure death, a death that will creep through the cracks, that will pass by the guards unnoticed.”

The British Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Sir Philip Ramon, is being threatened with death by the ‘Four Just Men’ (as they sign themselves) for attempting to pass the ‘Aliens Extradition (Political Offences) Bill’, which would remove protection from extradition for foreign nationals living in exile in the UK. To stop him the FJM plainly state that on a certain date and by a certain time he will be dead if he doesn’t withdraw the Bill, in effect seeking to hold the whole government to ransom. The book does have a traditional detective, Superintendent Falmouth, but the interesting thing here is that we are much more concerned with the FJM, who are presented as honourable and decent men driven to murder by the direst Wallace-FJMsocial and political necessity. And yet by any definition these men are terrorists, bringing a surprisingly contemporary dimension in its somewhat equivocal approach to traditional morality and certainly lifting this mystery above the norm. The entire novel is built around a (it was hoped) unguessable murder method and Wallace very cannily matches the hubbub he hoped to generate with the publicity for the book with that within the story itself, in which the British public, stoked by coverage in the tabloid the ‘Daily Megaphone’, eagerly awaits to see if the FJM will be able to carry out their terrible crime. In effect Wallace created a story in which the contest to outguess the author is also part of the narrative.

“This room is anarchist-proof …”

Wallace does eventually have someone die in a hermetically sealed room and the method is ingenious, though I dare say that practised fans of the genre may well guess it before the book’s closing pages. But even if you figure out the murder method, what you might find of interest is the ambivalence with which it presents its protagonists, though one’s opinion might slip once they kill an otherwise innocent pickpocket who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. To a certain extent this tends to reflect Wallace’s background in sensational news stories, more interested in grabbing readers with a bold idea than the underlying detail or creating genuine empathy with any of the characters.

Wallace had to sell the rights cheap when he went bankrupt but there were several sequels over the years. The entire series is made up of:

  • Four Just Men (1905)
  • The Council of Justice (1908)
  • The Just Men of Cordova (1917)
  • The Law of the Four Just Men (1921)
  • The Three Just Men (1926)
  • Again the Three (1928)

The entire series of books can be downloaded as part of the Gutenberg Project.

The novel has been adapted for the screen on several occasions. The first was in 1921 and is, by all accounts, very faithful to the original, with all the major characters represented though the script by director George Ridgewell does change the FJM’s target into a villainous factory owner, so making them more obviously heroic. The novel was later turned into a half-hour TV show in the late 1950s with the leads played by Jack Hawkins, Richard Conte, Dan Dailey and Vittorio De Sica as globe-trotting righters of wrongs, each episode featuring one of the leads in turn – you can view some of them online here. Much more entertaining though is the 1939 version (released in the US as The Secret Four) made at Ealing Studios by director Walter Forde, an expert in light thrillers and I’ll be reviewing it in 10 days time. For more about this book, make sure you read Patrick’s review on his blog, At the Scene of the Crime, as well as David L. Vineyard’s overview at Mystery File. as well as Steven Fielding’s in-depth analysis at Ballots & Bullets.

***** (3 fedora tips out of 5)

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57 Responses to THE FOUR JUST MEN (1905) by Edgar Wallace

  1. maddogmarley says:

    Thanks for the tip. I just downloaded it on Kindle.

  2. Sergio – What an interesting history this novel has! And I always respect an author whose work stands up to the test of time in terms of its larger themes. Well, perhaps not the way the murder was committed, but still… It’s interesting too how Wallace’s journalistic background. I suppose most authors’ work reflects their background but here we also see the flavour if I can put it that way coming through. Nice spot on that one! Thanks for well written (as always) post.

  3. Kelly says:

    That’s crazy that he went bankrupt. How did people prove that they guessed the ending without reading ahead, I wonder?

    • I probably should have been a bit clearer here Kelly (apologies) – he ran a competition before the book came out, serialising parts of it but without the ending. Once the book came out all the people who had guessed / deduced the ending correctly expected to get a prize as the book proved they had the right solution but Wallace was sych a terrible businessman that his publisher had to bail him out (and not for the first time) – £500 then was an absolute fortune! Of course, he thought nobody would gues sit in the first place – and the fact is that he was pretty slapdash in his fiction too be the speed and energy get you through – not so with the courts, even in thos edays … Still, he made and spent several more fortunes in his lifetime!

    • PS apparently the book, having been heavily promoted in the Daily Mail, had a detachable counterfoil instead of the ending which you were to send to Wallace with your suggested solution … I think this was also attempted by Israel Zangwill for his The Big Bow Mystery
      JFM

  4. Jose Ignacio says:

    Nice review Sergio. I look forward to your review of Conrad’s The Secret Agent

  5. Colin says:

    I have the Wordsworth omnibus containing this and I think it’s a reasonably good thriller/mystery – haven’t gotten round to the other “…Just Men” stuff yet.I also picked up the ITC TV show over the summer for a very good price but that’s still completely unwatched.

    • It’s good fun but does have this really odd edge to it – I remember quite liking the TV show though very typical of the ITC style of the time

      • Colin says:

        I have a bit of a soft spot for most ITC shows so I can overlook their more formulaic aspects.

        I’m curious to see what you make of Conrad’s book when you come to it, since it does relate to a similar period and political circumstances. I won’t say much more here except that I read it 10-15 years ago and really struggled with it.

        • I am a fan of the ITC adventures series but am admittedly less fond of the half-hour shows (Danger Man is one of the few exceptions and I still prefer the later version). Looking forward to going back to the Conrad – it’s been a very long time since I read it (or any Conrad, never the easiest of authors for me).

  6. I came across a copy of THE FOUR JUST MEN a week ago down in my basement. I’ve always meant to read it, but somehow it kept slipping away. After reading your review it’s now near the top of the Read Real Soon stack. I bought the COMPLETE DANGER MAN a few years ago when I caught an online sale.

  7. Richard says:

    I’d heard of this book but not of the prize, bankruptcy aspect. This sounds interesting enough to search out. Thanks, Sergio!

  8. Richard says:

    Sadly, the library here doesn’t have the book.

  9. Richard says:

    Ah! Paperback BookSwap had a copy! So I get it for free.

  10. Colin says:

    Actually, I managed to pick up a few more Wallace titles over the last 6-7 months. I was wondering if you plan to feature any more of his books? Just to be prepared you know.

    • Nice one Colin – I do have Room 13 on my immediate TBR, one of the books featuring JG Reeder, perhaps the most notable of his recurring characters. I am planning to do others as I plan to start making my way through the Merton Park film adaptation so really want to be able to compare them – which ones did you get chum?

      • Colin says:

        I got Man at the Carlton, The Frightened Lady and The Secret House.

        Speaking of Room 13, I have the Wordsworth JG Reeder omnibus sitting in my Amazon basket. I also managed to get all of the Merton Park movies when Network ran their sale a few weeks back and that whetted my appetite a bit.

        • I remember liking Frightened Lady as a teenager (read that one in Italian though) but haven’t read the other two. I envy you getting all the Network sets – I got review copies of the first two, which are superb quality I thought, but will wait for the big box allegedly out in November (aka Christmas).

          • Colin says:

            They were Holy Grail stuff for me – I’d been dying to get them since I saw them broadcast on late night TV all those years ago – and I just had to buy them. I never thought they’d get released really, let alone in such handsome form.

          • I do remember being really struck by the revolving bust title theme and I quite agree – the treatment on DVD thanks to Canal’s typically superb masters really have made these along the best of Network’s releases – I really do plan to spend Christmas watching a bunch these so you can certainly expect a lot more Wallace here!

          • Colin says:

            Man of Mystery is such a cool little tune and adds a lot to the overall presentation. The whole thing is just such a huge nostalgia kick for me.

          • For me it’s a weird kind of nostalgia because I know I came across it when visiting mt gran parents on trips to the UK in the early 80s (I’m guessing Channel screened them?) so probably resulted in a totally skewed and fantastical vision of England that probably explains a lot about my later tastes in escapist fiction … The later arrangement as popularised by The Shadows in great if incredibly unlikely.

          • Colin says:

            Ha! I remember when I first heard The Shadows version, and was kind of thrilled and vaguely puzzled too by the altered tempo.

            I know what you mean about the skewed vision of England too. Even though I grew up in Northern Ireland, still the UK, it was a very different place to the mainland. Stuff like this gave me an odd idea of what England was really like.

          • Of course not as bonkers as the Krimi versions of the Wallace films – sooner or later I’ll have to review some of these too … Couldn’t resist, just started re-watching the opening of Twisted Candle again with the original arrangement of the Michael Carr theme music – great stuff!

  11. TracyK says:

    I was just reading about Edgar Wallace recently, so this was of special interest. I am not sure I want to read this one, but … Have you read other books by him and would you recommend any?

    • Hi TracyK – well, he wrote all kinds of books including several locked room mysteries such as Clue of the Twisted Candle though perhaps even better are The Squeaker and The Crimson Circle. His best single book though may be the collection of short stories, The Mind of JG Reeder, featuring a decidedly Sherlockian detective.

  12. Yvette says:

    Ah, anarchy – those were the good old days. JUST KIDDING! But it does seem like such a quaint idea now. Much different from the terrorists of today. (Though perhaps that’s too find a distinction. Dead is dead.) Rick have you read THE MAN WHO WAS THURSDAY by Chesterton? That’s what your review reminded me of – in general. Though there is no locked room murder in THE MAN WHO WAS THURSDAY – in fact no murder at all that I remember. But it is still an eerie, frightening book and well worth looking for if you’re not familiar with it. Mention of anarchy immediately makes Chesterton’s book spring to mind. At any rate, I’ve never read Wallace. But thanks to you, I just might. :)

    • Colin says:

      Yvette, you should visit Athens. Anarchy and anarchists are alive and well here. One of my former girlfriends was/is heavily into the anarchist movement.

      • Having said that, anarchy ‘aint what it used to be. I’ve voted Communist all my life in Italy and look where it’s got us … Which reminds me, you going to review Gavras’ Z at some point?

        • Colin says:

          Perhaps, it’s a thought. Although the situation here, and way things continue to pan out, has left me extremely disillusioned.

          • I have to agree sadly – beyond trying to achieve things at a micro level, it is so hard not to feel perpetually disillusioned. And yet, at least economically, Europe is said to be starting to improve and this has to trickle through to the Aegean and Mediterranean too, right? Ever read the Fortunes of War sextet by Olivia Manning? Wonderfully well done and made into fantastic TV with Thompson and Branagh working with a great Alan Plater adaptation. Very good DVD edition too.

          • Colin says:

            I remember seeing bits and pieces of the TV series when it was originally broadcast. I was always a little annoyed at myself for not giving it more attention. I had no idea it was out on DVD – had pretty much forgotten the whole thing in fact – so I think I’ll look into that. Thanks.

          • You weren’t the only one as I think it did get a bit lost amomg the various ‘heritage’ productions of the mid to late 80s – but I loved it (and wrote a brief essay about the series here) but the books are well worth reading, especially the Balkan Trilogy.

          • Colin says:

            Thanks for the link – very nice, succinct article. I’ll definitely have to look into it now.

          • Easy to get (here and here). How long does it usually take for stuff to arrive in Greece from the UK then?

          • Colin says:

            Damn, those prices are tempting! And here’s me trying to economize too!

            Deliveries from the UK usually take in the region of a week. I say again usually, we’re talking about Greece after all…

          • Blimey, that’s about the same for me in London! By the way, the series was made entirely on film and looks very plush in my view though not in a showy way – you might get a kick out of the scenes in Greece too … Robert Stephens had one of his last great TV roles in it too.

          • Colin says:

            You know, my resistance is crumbling here, and I do believe I can actually hear my credit card whimpering. :)

          • Well, that only seems fair after what you’ve made me spend over the years (not that I’m complaining …) :)

    • Thanks Yvette (I told that Rick guy to get out of here and stop impersonating me though – as Bert Lahr would say, the noive!) – I haven’t read that Chesterton in ages and you are right, a great book and I really will have to find my copy (just bought some shelves today for my new place so I literally might find it) – Wallace is good fun in an incredibly dated way (his gangster patois is pretty hilarious now).

  13. Sergio, I wonder what impact, if any, this book might have had on the ruling political class at the time and whether Wallace got any flak on account of it. Extradition and immigration are politically sensitive issues even today and it’s not hard to imagine a similar non-extremist movement. A very imaginative story and you reviewed it well. I have a few of Wallace’s ebooks too but they seem to have slipped past me too.

    • You are right to pinpoint the historical side of it because that is what makes the story fascinating as it tells us something rather unexpected about the tail end of the Victorian era. It seems that most saw the book as a shocker and didn’t take it seriously in any way, which is certainly what Wallace intended – he was just in it for the money!

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