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.
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”.
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.
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 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.
The Council Of Justice was originally published in 1908. I am reading the 2012 Wordsworth paperback compendium “The Complete Four Just Men”.
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…
The Four Just Men was originally published in 1905. I read the 2012 Wordsworth paperback compendium “The Complete Four Just Men”