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.

Tuesday ’Tec! The Stealer of Marble by Edgar Wallace

capital crimes london mysteriesSkulduggery in the City…

 

Capital Crimes: London Mysteries is a collection of crime short stories, edited by Martin Edwards, published as part of the British Library Crime Classics series. Many of the stories are by authors I’ve never heard of, much less read, but there are a few well-known names amongst them too. I’ll be reviewing the full collection at some point in the future, but here’s a little taster from the pen of one of the best thriller writers of his time, for this week’s…

Tuesday Tec

The Stealer of Marble by Edgar Wallace

 

Edgar Wallace
Edgar Wallace

This story was first published in 1925 as part of a 12-story collection entitled The Mind of Mr J G Reeder. Mild-mannered Mr Reeder works for the Public Prosecutor’s Department, and his fascination for all things criminal sometimes enables him to see through puzzles that leave the police baffled.

Rumours have been going round the City that Telfers Consolidated, an old family-run business, might be about to hit the rocks. Its founder is long-dead and the company is now in the hands of his grandson, Sidney Telfer, a weak young man with no head for business. Sidney’s secretary, Margaret Belman, is coincidentally a neighbour of Mr Reeder’s, though they only know each other as nodding acquaintances.

'The_Mind_of_Mr._J.G._Reader'

Miss Belman is a pretty young woman, who’s walking out with a respectable young man. So she is shocked when one day, out of the blue, her employer asks her to run away with him to South America. The next day, Sidney’s begs her to tell no-one of his proposition, promising that he would marry her as soon as some legal difficulties could be got over. Miss Belman finds no difficulty in turning him down flat, and you can understand why…

The room, with its stained-glass windows and luxurious furnishing, fitted Mr Telfer perfectly, for he was exquisitely arrayed. He was tall and so painfully thin that the abnormal smallness of his head was not at first apparent. As the girl came into the room he was sniffing delicately at a fine cambric handkerchief, and she thought that he was paler than she had ever seen him – and more repellent.

Later that same day, an employee of Telfers, a Mr Billingham, embezzles £150,000 from the firm, bringing it crashing down. Mr Billingham disappears and the best efforts of the police fail to trace him. Because of the size of the theft, the Public Prosecutor’s Department sends in Mr Reeder, but at first he is also at something of a loss. However, one day a few weeks later, Mr Reeder is indulging his hobby of watching criminal court cases, when a woman appears in the dock, accused of having stolen marble chips from a stonemason’s yard. At first intrigued by the strangeness of the crime, Mr Reeder becomes even more interested when it is revealed that the woman is Sidney Telfer’s housekeeper, who had also acted as guardian to Sidney after the death of his parents.

Hugh Burden as Mr Reeder in the 1969 Thames Television series based on the stories
Hugh Burden as Mr Reeder in the 1969 Thames Television series based on the stories

Mr Reeder lets his mind work over his favourite game of patience, and soon figures out the connection between the housekeeper, the stolen marble and the disappearance of Mr Billingham and the money. Have you? No, I didn’t either, and I’m not totally sure it would be possible to on the basis of the information the reader is given – but it’s a lovely puzzle with a nice old-fashioned feel to it, back in the days when fictional criminals came up with more imaginative methods of committing their crimes. The tone of the story has something of a similar feel to the more quirky of the Holmes stories, but is lighter, with one eye always on the humorous aspect. Although there’s a bit of a thrillerish ending, there’s never any real doubt that Mr Reeder will get everything sorted out. I enjoyed the writing style – I don’t know that it would work for novel length, but it made for a very entertaining short story.

“Put down that jug or I will blow your features into comparative chaos!” said Mr Reeder pedantically.

The characterisation is surprisingly good given how little room there is for development, and there’s a clear distinction between the baddies and the goodies. And while the solution to the puzzle is one of the more far-fetched I’ve come across, it works in the context and style of the story. I feel I may have to track down some more of Mr Reeder’s adventures…

* * * * *

Little Grey Cells rating: ❓ ❓ ❓

Overall story rating:      😀 😀 😀 😀