The Four Just MenJuly 7, 2012
This is probably the fourth or fifth time that I’ve tried to sit down and write about an Edgar Wallace book. And I’m not counting Tam o’ the Scoots, because that’s not the typical Edgar Wallace crime thriller thing. Although, to be fair, neither is The Four Just Men. I tend to try to explain what Edgar Wallace is about, which is difficult because he’s so casual and scattered and ridiculous. And then I end up making a lot of broad generalizations and comparisons to E. Phillips Oppenheim, and eventually I realize that I haven’t said much of anything about the book. I don’t think I ought to have to do that here, because, while The Four Just Men is set in the same milieu as Wallace’s usual crime thrillers, it’s not as crazy. Still, though. Anyway, this isn’t a review. This is me writing about Edgar Wallace and not knowing how to read it back.
The Four Just Men edges dangerously close to the master criminal/worldwide conspiracy/widespread terror thing that I hate (see generally far too many Agatha Christie books) but the Just Men aren’t thieves or drug dealers, and while their reach is long, their conspiracy is very, very small. In fact, there are only three Just Men — one of the original four was killed in some kind of shoot-out in Bordeaux or somewhere some time before the story opens. The three that remain are Raymond Poiccart, George Manfred, and Louis Gonsalez, and at the beginning of the book they’ve just recruited a whiny, cowardly fourth, Miguel Thery, whose unspecified skills they need to accomplish their latest task.
The Four Just Men are self-appointed judges and executioners of evil men who, for whatever reason, are beyond the law. But that’s not quite what happens with Sir Philip Ramon, who isn’t an evil man at all. He just happens to be responsible for a bill that, if passed into law, would send a number of revolutionaries home to be killed by the governments they’re trying to overthrow. The four don’t care about Sir Philip, particularly. They just want to stop the law, and if they can do that by explaining themselves, they’re happy to. So they send him an excessive number of threats, and the police give him an excessive amount of protection, but you know it’s going to come down to the Four killing Sir Philip, you just don’t know how. There’s also a lot of public attention, and a police chief you sort of can’t help but root for, but really what you want to know is how they’re going to do it and you can’t help but want them to succeed.
This is the book that put Edgar Wallace on the map, and it was kind of a disaster, because — well, you can get a longer version of the story from Wikipedia, but basically Wallace convinced the publisher to offer a prize for the solution of the mystery, but neglected to put any limit on how many people could win that prize, so they had to give out a lot more money than was originally planned, and Edgar Wallace went massively into debt, although that was kind of a recurring thing for him. Anyway, you can kind of see the effects of the contest in the book itself: Wallace keeps back a lot that he would ordinarily reveal. Still, there’s a lot of logistical stuff, and small sections of the plan seen in detail. It’s pretty cool.
Another nice thing about The Four Just Men is that it’s so focused. Wallace usually gives the impression that he doesn’t know at the beginning of the book how it’s going to end. That’s not the case here, and it surprised me, because I don’t think of straightforwardness as one of Wallace’s strengths. See, this is the problem. I try to write about Edgar Wallace and I end up thinking of the book so much in terms of Wallace that I can’t see the book itself separately.
Oh well. Maybe next time.