The Four Just Men by Edgar Wallace

Surprisingly contemporary…

😀 😀 😀 😀

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.

Challenge details:
Book: 2
Subject Heading: A New Era Dawns
Publication Year: 1905

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.

30 thoughts on “The Four Just Men by Edgar Wallace

  1. Interesting, isn’t it, FictionFan, how some things are relevant even more than 100 years after they were first written. It certainly says something about humans… At any rate, I’m glad you liked Wallace’s storytelling and writing style. To me, that can make all the difference in the world. And it does raise an important set of questions about refugees. Glad you thought this worked for you.

    • Yes, it’s kinda sad to realise we’re still facing the same problems 100 years on, and no nearer finding solutions, it would seem. I enjoyed this more than I expected to, given my antipathy to vigilantes. I must seek out some of his other stuff…

    • I enjoyed it more than I expected, given that I really don’t like vigilante stories. I know – it’s kinda sad that we’re still facing the same problems after all this time…

  2. How wonderful that you’re ending the week on a high note, FF! This doesn’t sound like something I’d particularly enjoy, but I’m glad you did. And, as usual, you’ve written an outstanding, fair review!

    • Thank you! 😀 I enjoyed it more than I expected to, given that I don’t really like stories about vigilantes. But it’s very well written, and it was surprisingly relevant given it’s more than a century old…

  3. This is one of those books that you always think that you have read and then discover that you haven’t. In fact I don’t think I’ve even seen the film. (There is a film, isn’t there? There must be, surely!). Isn’t it interesting, though how the same themes return again and again however much the world might seem to have changed.

    • Ha! Funnily enough, I was almost sure I’d read this one before, but once I started I realised I never had. I wonder how many other books fall into that “I’m sure I’ve read it” category. I couldn’t find a film but there seems to have been a TV show way back in the distant past. I know – it’s kinda sad that we’re still facing the same problems 100 years in, and no nearer finding a solution, it would seem…

    • Yes, I thought he did the moral dilemma very well, leaving it up to the reader to decide. Being boringly law-abiding, I of course was on the side of the minister. There are very few circumstances in which the assassination of a democratically elected politician would meet with my approval – though there are exceptions… 😉

  4. Wow, I wasn’t ready to hear that it’s nearly 120 years old. I was thinking 50yrs or so. So familiar today. Those who leave and aren’t living the nightmare tend to stir the pot, provide a bit of funding or weaponry, and encourage those “at home” to do their dirty work. It’s a murky problem. Not sure I would read this book, although I enjoyed your review.

    • I know – it’s sad that we still seem to be facing the same problems over a century later, and no nearer finding solutions, it would seem! I’m always dubious about the legitimacy of opposition leaders operating from abroad – how much support do they really have in their own countries? I enjoyed the book more than I expected, given my general dislike of vigilantes…

  5. I think it’s amazing how this is still relevant now – perhaps it just proves that more stays the same than we think. I’m not keen on vigilantes either so I’m heartened to hear the writing was engaging enough for you to enjoy one instalment.

    • I know – I found it kinda sad that we still seem to have the same problems and seem to be no nearer finding solutions. I believe he wrote other series too, so I might seek out one of them – I did enjoy the writing even if the story wasn’t to my taste…

  6. Very impressed that a book written in 1905 can still be so relevant today, although, also kind of sad too. I mean, where has all this progress gotten us? It’s like we’re moving backwards in so many ways…

    • Yes, I thought it was sad that we seem to be no nearer finding solutions today than people were back then. Different countries, same problems. Though in fact we still even have quite a lot of Russians in London who’ve left Russia for political reasons…

    • Tut! British people didn’t cheat back in those days! 😉 It seemed to have been quite successful as a marketing ploy, but backfired when so many people worked out the solution. Silly man!

    • Hahaha – well, if you are, so am I! Silly man – he clearly thought he’d come up with a much harder puzzle than he really had. Bet he never repeated the experiment… 😀

  7. It sounds like the characters involved – police, foreign secretary, journalists – are well-drawn and that Wallace was able to portray all sides of the issue fairly. Not something I’m immediately attracted to but I enjoyed reading about it all the same! And congrats on reading a book for a challenge. 🙂

    • Yes, it’s very well written which meant I enjoyed it even though I’m not keen on vigilante type stories. I might try one of his different series though. Thanks – I’m trying hard to keep on top of my challenges this year… but then it’s only January… 😉

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