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When the British Foreign Secretary decides to push through a law which will allow the enforced return of political refugees to their countries of origin, he becomes a target of the Four Just Men – a group of vigilantes who set out to right what they perceive as wrongs that the normal systems of justice can’t touch. The story is a kind of cat-and-mouse game where the reader, along with the entire British public, waits to see if the Four Just Men succeed in carrying out their threat to assassinate the Foreign Secretary.
This was a rather odd read for me, in that I hated the premise – vigilantes are not my cup of tea – and yet found the storytelling compelling enough that I found myself racing through it. It’s well written and the pacing is excellent. Wallace sits on the fence himself as to the rights and wrongs of it – he shows both sides, but doesn’t take too strong a stance in favour of either. I believe in later books he chose cases that weren’t quite so murky, where it was clearer that the victims of the Just Men deserved their fate, and I suspect I might prefer those.
This one, however, despite having been published way back in 1905, has a surprisingly relevant plot. The purpose of the legislation is to prevent political agitators from using the safety of foreign countries to stir up revolutions back in their own nation. With my recent Russian Revolution reading, it made me think very much of those Russians, like Lenin, who spent their time in the safety of exile encouraging their countrymen back home to commit acts of terrorism against the state. But I also couldn’t help thinking of the West’s current moral struggle over the question of allowing in refugees at a time when the fear of terrorism is high, or the difficulty of expelling people even when it’s known they are attempting to radicalise others.
It’s a quick read – somewhere between a long novella and a short novel. There is a mystery of sorts over how the Just Men plan to carry out the assassination. Martin Edwards tells us in the introduction that, as an advertising ploy, Wallace offered cash prizes to readers who could work out the solution. Apparently, so many did that it nearly bankrupted him. I wish I’d been around at the time, because I thought it was blindingly obvious. I suspect, though, that might be because the key is more commonplace now than it would have been back then. Forgive the vagueness, but to say more would be a major spoiler.
The rest of the plotting works much more effectively. There is a real sense of the building tension as the deadline approaches. The Foreign Secretary is not physically brave, but shows a good deal of moral courage in the end. The police are shown as competent and vigilant, good men determined to protect the Secretary even at the expense of their own lives, if necessary. The press get involved and we see their dilemma of being ordinary good people who don’t want to see murder done but also journalists who do want a huge front page story! Wallace handles all these ethical questions well and believably, I thought. The Just Men themselves are more shadowy, with no real background given as to why they’ve set themselves up as judge and executioner or how they got together. I found them far less credible. But I was pulled along in the need to know whether the Secretary would survive.
An intriguing read that provoked more thought than I was anticipating. I don’t think I’m sufficiently enthusiastic to want to read more of the adventures of the Four Just Men, but overall I found this one interesting and entertaining enough to be glad to have read it, and to recognise its claim to be a classic of the genre. And, on that basis, recommended.
No Amazon links, since I downloaded this from wikisource.