The Three Just Men – Edgar Wallace (1924) – A Running Man Review

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Those Four Just Men from the original 1905 publication have been up and down in their membership throughout the series, there were just two of them in “The Law Of The Four Just Men” story collection.  They now seem to have settled down to three with the most underwritten of the trio, Poiccart, coming out of retirement for this and, I assume, the last of the titles that make up the Wordsworth “Complete Four Just Men”, seeing as the title of this is “Again The Three.”

In this 1924 work we get plenty of dead bodies, some through mysterious snake bites which provides the show-piece puzzle of the novel.  There’s abductions, disguise, a shady Swedish doctor and his even more amoral German henchman, doping and a finale of a siege.  Wallace once again ups the pace as the novel progresses, as far as I am concerned it started well then really began to drop to a point where I didn’t know (nor really care) exactly what was going  on, but as in the previous novels he drew me back in for the last third and all the mysteries were eventually explained.

I’d felt his female characters were not terribly successful in this book’s predecessors but here we have two quite vibrant women, one trustworthy, one less so.  I’m getting to the point with just one novel in the series to go that I’m looking forward to getting through it and moving on with my reading but looking back when I finished this one I had enjoyed it more than I thought I would when I was ploughing through the mid-section.

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The Three Just Men was originally published in 1924.  I read the edition in the Wordsworth paperback “Complete Four Just Men Collection”

The Law Of The Four Just Men -Edgar Wallace (1921) – A Running Man Review

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British crime writer Edgar Wallace’s fourth publication in his “Four Just Men” series appeared three years after “The Just Men Of Cordova” and shows a marked change in structure as instead of being a novel this consists of 10 short stories. I was very  interested in finding out  how the author was able to use this form and hoping that it might be used to provide a bit of back story. Within the three novels I have read there are a number of references to previous cases which seem to represent a so far uncatalogued glory days for the foursome and this seemed like a perfect opportunity for Wallace to explore some of these cases in a short story format.

He hasn’t done this. Instead these unlinked stories fit chronologically into the pattern the Wordsworth “Complete Four Just Men” uses being probably set after the events of the previous novel where, confusingly, considering the title, there are only two Just Men operating. This does allow a little more insight into character, perhaps the most significant is Leon Gonsalez, who has remained fairly under the radar in the previous novels who here has an interest in linking physical attributes and crime, which was probably a bit of an issue around the time this was published. So, large and long front teeth = probable murderer in “The Man With The Canine Teeth”. In a number of the stories it is the quirks of an individual which stands them out as a suspect, thus we get “The Man Who Hated Earthworms”, “The Man Who Loved Music” (well, the 1812 Overture) and “The Man Who Hated Amelia Jones” as titles.

Luckily, Wallace did not offer the same incentive to purchase as he did with his “Four Just Men” debut where readers were offered £500 to solve the case in a move which almost brought about financial ruin as people did and he was obliged to pay the sizeable amount to all those who did for this is very predictable fare with the odd twist but nothing like we have come to expect in short crime fiction in the intervening years.

This collection passed the time but probably wouldn’t be one that I would return to. I enjoyed the trickery involved in obtaining justice, my favourite being in the downfall of a drugs pusher in the elaborate “The Man Who Died Twice”.

The formula of these stories is pretty much the same as in the novels, a criminal has evaded justice and this has come to the main protagonists’ attention, somebody usually says something like “isn’t is a shame the Four Just Men aren’t around anymore” and the plan for retribution swings into action. Starting with this collection wouldn’t necessary put you off reading the novels but Wallace might be better at the more extended form.

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The Law Of The Four Just Men was first published in 1921. I read the version printed in the Wordsworth paperback “The Complete Four Just Men”.

The Just Men Of Cordova – Edgar Wallace (1918) – A Running Man Review

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First published in the last year of World War I this was Edgar Wallace’s third novel in his “Four Just Men” series. There had been a ten year gap between “The Council Of Justice” and this reflected a time when he was writing prolifically as well as getting very involved in horse racing, starting up his own newspapers on the subject. Horse racing does feature as a major set piece which for its duration reads like a predecessor of a Dick Francis work.

The Just Men take more of a back seat with their identity still foxing and fooling those they come up against. The identity of one of the four is not even known by two of the others and that also builds up in the plot until this particular mystery is revealed.

Once again there is the odd turgid moment in the build-up. Central to this novel is Colonel Black a dodgy businessman whose opponents seem to be dying suddenly. There’s undetectable poison administered with a feather which keeps the plot ticking over until, and this seems to be typical of a Wallace novel the tension is cranked up for a more tautly written last third. This is where we get the aforementioned horse race where whole fortunes are staked and its aftermath which makes for some gripping reading and which excuses the business machinations in the earlier part of the novel which are not always easy to fathom for the modern reader and which may get the attention wandering slightly.

Typical of many adventure novels where the audience demands action some of the characters are underwritten but Wallace has here created one of his strongest characters I’ve read to date in Police Constable Frank Fellowe who has his own reasons for attempting to resolve the foul play.

Once again, by the end of the novel Edgar Wallace has whetted my appetite for more of the same which would go some way to explaining his contemporary popularity and longevity as a writer. There are three more novels to go in this Wordsworth “Complete Four Just Men” collection.

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The Just Men Of Cordova was first published in 1918. I read the version printed in the Wordsworth paperback “The Complete Four Just Men”.

The Council Of Justice – Edgar Wallace (1908) – A Running Man Review

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The second novel in the “Complete Four Just Men” collection was published three years after the first and in this time Wallace had rethought his anti-heroes.  In the opening work they were pitched against the establishment in actions that looks, especially to modern eyes, like terrorism.  In a bid to keep readers’ sympathies to the characters in this longer novel they are pitched against a group of anarchists, known as the Red Hundred, who begin their own campaign of terror in London.  Significant amongst these is the first female character in this series.  Known only as the Woman of Gretz she has established herself strongly amongst the anarchic group.  She is a very welcome addition to the cast of characters but Wallace is not sure what to do with her- rabble-rouser, heartless bitch or displaying humanity, she’s all a bit of a mish-mash which doesn’t come off.

The Four Just Men on this their second outing still seem underdrawn, merging into one another but given their need for anonymity this might have been intentional.  One of them, George Manfred, is established more strongly as a separate character this time around.  As in the first book in the series what works best of all here is the build-up to the climax.  In that book it was the projected assassination of a British minister and here it is a potential jail break which ramps up the tension extremely effectively.

I must admit that I am not yet gripped by these books from their start to finish but there is certainly enough in the first two instalments to keep me wanting to read on.

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The Council Of Justice was originally published in 1908.  I am reading the 2012 Wordsworth paperback compendium “The Complete Four Just Men”.

 

The Four Just Men – Edgar Wallace (1905) – A Running Man Review

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Edgar Wallace was one of the authors featured in Christopher Fowler’s “Book Of Forgotten Authors” who I fancied discovering. I’d heard of this prolific and popular English writer (1875-1932) and also of his most famous work “The Four Just Men” but had never read anything by him.

To put this right I purchased a Wordsworth edition of “The Complete Four Just Men” at a bargain price, a weighty tome which features not only his 1905 publication but the other five works about his creations which he continued to revisit sporadically until 1928’s “Again The Three”.

Looking at this sizeable volume I have decided probably the only way I would get through it at this time is to fit in a Wallace novel between other books I want to read, so I’m starting here with the title work, which is actually more of a novella coming in at just over 100 (although in quite dense print) pages.

I fully expected an action tale full of valiant deeds and derring-dos but the Four Just Men of the title can best be described nowadays as terrorists, a quartet of men who take the law into their own hands and operate their system of justice internationally dispatching those they consider to have done wrong. When I started this novel it did remind me in terms of style of G K Chesterton’s “The Man Who Was Thursday”, a novel I really didn’t get on with at all. I think that this was because it also dates from the first decade of the twentieth century (1907) and that was how popular fiction was written in those days. This is a much more entertaining work.

There’s far less going on in terms of sub-plot than I would have imagined. The British Foreign Secretay is on the verge of bringing in a law (the details of which I’m rather vague on and which probably don’t matter) which The Four Just Men, originally in their hideout in Spain do not agree with and the politician’s life is threatened if he does not drop the issue. The location shifts to London and becomes a how-will-they-do it type novel.

Edgar Wallace got much publicity for this by offering a £500 reward for readers who could work out what was going on when it was serialised in The Daily Mail for whom Wallace worked at the time. A slip up in the small print meant that everyone who guessed correctly would get the money and people began to guess correctly in larger numbers than anticipated. This meant Wallace had to borrow money to save face with his employers and had to sell a lot of copies to break even. I’ve read the whole book and I’m not really sure if I got the “how will they do it?” part at all.

I did, however, very much enjoy the tension of the police pitted against the inscrutable Four and the sense of time running out for the Foreign Secretary. You get the feeling that The Four Just Men would soon sort out Brexit! As they made their escape at the end of the novel (not a plot spoiler as I’ve already told you there are five more in the series) I found myself looking forward to what they will get up to next. In the style of the best Edwardian serialisations this is….To Be Continued…

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The Four Just Men was originally published in 1905. I read the 2012 Wordsworth paperback compendium “The Complete Four Just Men”

The Murder Bag – Tony Parsons (2014) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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I’ve never before read any Tony Parsons (other than journalistic pieces for the New Musical Express and the many other publications he has contributed to over the years). Best known for his “Man and Boy” trilogy of novels, in 2014 his writing took a very different approach when he began his first crime series featuring DC Max Wolfe.

To date there have been six novels (the latest “#Taken” published this year) and three shorter works. I was tempted to start at the beginning by a recent special offer on Amazon Kindle which focuses on first of series (I was obviously in a crime novel mood at the time  and also purchased Craig Russell’s “Lennox” and Don Winslow’s “The Power Of The Dog, neither of which I’ve read yet).

“The Murder Bag” certainly begins with a punch with a prologue set in 1988 which provides the historic framework for the events in what is clearly going to be a revenge novel. This prologue makes for uncomfortable reading and is continued with a high-octane first chapter which is how I imagine a Lee Child novel would read (I haven’t read one) and which also reminded me of the explosive show-piece openings of the BBC TV series “Line Of Duty”. The purpose of all this action is to give Max Wolfe a back story which explains his transfer to the Homicide and Serious Crime Division.

Wolfe is a newcomer in his post and a single parent with a 5 year old daughter Scout and a young King Charles Spaniel he is trying to settle into the family. There’s a lot of dog references in Wolfe’s first-person narrative, this is a man who notices dogs in his everyday life and investigations, they are a central part of his life, which gives him a little individual quirk compared to all the other fictional DCs out there.

When men of the same age meet a violent death with the same M.O a connection is made to their privileged past and after the sheer intensity of the first two sections this settles into a police procedural.

As a crime novel I’m not totally convinced that Parsons on this initial outing has got everything spot on. It feels a little inconsistent. You know with a Peter James what you will be getting and there’s few better at the police procedural novel which, when on his best form,  is so carefully executed that it is totally convincing. I know I’m comparing Parsons with one of the very best but I wasn’t always convinced here and felt that for a first-person narrative that the style wasn’t consistent, which made it unpredictable, true, but also a little jarring. I appreciate that it’s early days for DC Max Wolfe but I feel as a character he does not feel as assured as I would have expected. I know Parsons is trying to show different facets of personality with sentimental scenes involving his daughter and the dog, macho boxing scenes and within his professional life where as a newcomer he is bound to make mistakes but I don’t think all the pieces here come together. It seems as if the author is trying to play to his existing readers as well as those like myself, discovering him primarily as a crime writer and this is causing a slight struggle with style. But I think he will get there and I’m looking forward to reading more to confirm this.

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The Murder Bag was published by Arrow in 2014. I read the Kindle edition.

Lethal White- Robert Galbraith (2018) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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Why exactly do people read the crime novels J K Rowling writes as Robert Galbraith? Is it for the intelligently crafted plot and the satisfaction of the tying up of the interweaving threads of a detective novel? I suspect not, they are read more for the dynamics between the two main characters, private detective Cormoran Strike and his business partner Robin Ellacott both here on their fourth outing.

If this is the case then this lengthy work will delight as there is more relationship than crime plot going on here. I was very happy that it picks up where “Career Of Evil” (2015) left off, at the wedding of Robin and her disappointing fiancé Matthew. Cormoran had stumbled into the wedding proceedings leaving the “will she/won’t she?” aspect very much in the air last time round and here in a Prologue the story we all wanted to read about is resumed. I’m not plot spoiling by saying the wedding goes ahead but given the circumstances the marriage might not last that long. I applaud JK Rowling for beginning the novel at this point.

Following this Prologue we fast forward a year and Strike’s agency is doing well after its high profile cases featured in the previous novels and some of the work is having to be shared out to sub-contractors.  Robin and Cormoran get involved in a blackmail scenario involving a government minister with Robin going undercover at the Palace Of Westminster.  Strike is perturbed by a distressed visitor to his office with a tale from the past which may be linked to the blackmail attempt. The plot simmers along nicely and I do think the balance between a character led narrative and any actual action works well and would please more of her readers than it would disappoint. It’s a long time before an actual corpse makes an appearance and the whole thing is a lot less gruesome and more understated than in the last two novels. I can appreciate this balance as for me the more plot-driven second novel “The Silkworm” (2015) is the weakest of the four and both through her writing and the TV adaptations the two main characters are so strong that I found myself really relishing the scenes when they are together.

This book achieved somewhat mixed views on publication mainly concerning its length. I actually found that there was enough to keep me from grumbling about its number of pages. It could have been tightened a little but that is the case for most books which come in at over 600 pages in a hardback edition. On reflection, I feel I should have cared more about the “whodunnit” aspect of the novel, this is crime fiction after all, which is why this is not quite up to “Career Of Evil” standards but it is a close run thing as we are provided with another highly enjoyable read. “Career Of Evil” was more effective in ramping up the tension. I feel also that Strike’s London has come across stronger in previous novels but this doorstep of a read certainly shouldn’t put people off this series of novels and those that have read the four will be eagerly anticipating the fifth- myself included.

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Lethal White was published in hardback by Sphere in September 2018. The paperback edition is out this week on 18th April.

The Chalk Man – C J Tudor (2018) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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“Every kid wants to find a dead body. About the only thing a twelve year old boy wants to find more is a spaceship, buried treasure or a porn mag.”

These sentiments expressesd in CJ Tudor’s debut remind me very much of “Stand By Me”, the film based upon the short story by Stephen King and the King feel looms large throughout this book, there is even a front cover recommendation from the man himself who has obviously noted that he and Tudor are pulling in the same direction as he states; “If you like my stuff, you’ll like this.”

But don’t think this is some Stephen King rip-off as it is has an identity all of its own. For a start it is British set in a town called Anderbury located around 20 miles from Bournemouth. We have a narrative of two time spans – 1986 with the aforementioned twelve year old boys and thirty years later when a discovery made back then in the woods is still holding the main characters back.

I was really looking forward to the 1980’s setting and I think the author does a pretty good job of conjuring up what it was like to be twelve in the mid-80s but I think I was looking for a stronger feel of the period, but then again I suppose we can’t expect this particular group of adolescents to be too aware of what was going on around them, they are just living their last innocent summer before some horrific realities of life kick in.

What the author does do very well in her debut is to keep a tense atmosphere throughout. A terrifying incident at a fairground packs one hell of a punch early on and from then on we know that lives will never be the same again. I like the ambiguity in the title referring both to chalk figures used by main character Ed and his pals to communicate; to drawings which have resurfaced in the later narrative strand and to the nickname of an albino teacher who makes his presence felt in the summer before he joins the children’s school. This all adds to the richness and edginess of the book.

Characterisation is memorable, the resolution perhaps not as satisfactory as the build- up but I often feel that way about crime novels. I really like the idea of us having a budding Stephen King here in the UK and I could also feel the influence of another of the author’s literary heroes, James Herbert. This is well-written edgy crime, that never allows the reader to truly relax and which does hover towards horror on quite a few occasions. I’m not surprised that it has appeared on a good number of “Best Of 2018” lists.
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The Chalk Man was published by Penguin in 2018.

The Perfect Murder- Peter James (2010) -A Murder They Wrote Review

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My second Peter James novel I’ve read this year is a much slighter affair than “Dead Man’s Grip” which will be in contention for my Book of The Year this year.  “The Perfect Murder” takes my tally of James’ novels to eight which eases him into the anchor position of my Top 10 most read authors alongside Martina Cole and John Steinbeck.  This was because I selected “A Quick Read Novel” from the Sandown Library Russian Roulette Reading Challenge.  This was published for World Book Day in 2010 and can be polished off quite easily in an hour.  The whole Quick Reads enterprise is to tempt people back into reading primarily but it can also provide a cheap, easy read for fans of the author.  Last year I read Minette Walters’ “Chickenfeed” from the same series.  You are not going to get the very best work from an author but hopefully a sampler of what they do in order to tempt you into finding out more.

“The Perfect Murder” is a stand-alone novel set like James’ Roy Grace series in Brighton, although on this occasion it could have been set anywhere.  Victor and Joan Smiley, a rather elderly-seeming pair of forty-somethings are so stuck in the rut of their marriage that the only way out seems to be murder and both are planning to bump the other one off.

Characterisation is broadly drawn yet effective and there are twists to the tale, some of which I didn’t see coming, some I did.  There is a danger when writing these Quick Reads to order that the more limited vocabulary and length these demand can mean that the actual defining style of the author does not come through.  I think this is, to an extent, a valid point in both the James and Walters novellas I’ve read but the Brighton location and very Peter James front cover goes some way to rectifying this.

I know that Peter James has produced at least one collection of short stories and here he displays that he has the knack of conveying a sinister involving tale in a succinct fashion.

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The Perfect Murder was published by Pan Books in 2010.

Cover Her Face – P D James (1962) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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How have I got to this ripe old age without having ever read P D James?  This is even more of an oversight when amongst my most-read authors you would find Ruth Rendell, Martina Cole and Agatha Christie.  I know how good Baroness James Of Holland Park (1920-2014) was and I always enjoyed watching and listening to her being interviewed and reading about her – but of her fiction, up to now I’ve not read a scrap.

Seeing as I like to read in chronological order I had to start with her very first novel, which introduced Adam Dalgleish dating right back to 1962.  It is a surprisingly traditional country house whodunnit with all the elements present from the golden age of crime fiction- a death in a locked room,  a social gathering which sees outsiders coming into the rarefied atmosphere of the house (in this case a garden fete), suspects both above and below stairs and a denouement where all of the possible killers are together for the unveiling by the lead sleuth, in this case, Detective Chief Inspector Adam Dalgleish.  Of him we learn very little on this outing (he has a boat for off-duty adventures) as it is the inhabitants of Martingale Manor who are this novel’s central focus.

1962 is quite late on in the day for a form of fiction that was at its peak a couple of decades earlier so it’s surprising that James was not offering anything new here, but what we do get is a plot which shows intelligence and a complete understanding of the genre. She paves the way with clues that I didn’t pick up on (I so rarely do) and has produced a novel which is well-written with involving characterisation which all adds to breathing some new life into a well-worn format.

There’s nothing that feels like cliché here and that is testament to James’ handling of the plot.  Some of the attitudes might seem old-fashioned but that is only to be expected.  I enjoyed reading this very much.
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Cover Your Face was first published in 1962 by Faber and Faber.  I read a 2010 paperback.  The book is still in print.