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Top Mysteries Challenge review: The Four Just Men by Edgar Wallace

Apparently, Edgar Wallace was a very famous writer in his day, but I must admit to never having heard of him before starting this challenge.

Genre: Thriller, crime story
Year of publication: 1905
No. in series: 1/3
Type of investigator: Police
Setting & time: London, contemporary

The British foreign secretary is trying to pass through parliament a bill enabling the government to send back to their home countries people who, for one reason or another, have fled to Britain. A group of men, three conspirators and one recruit, calling themselves the Four Just Men, threaten to assassinate him unless he withdraws the Bill, which they see as unjust, as it would enable the extradition not only of escaped criminals, but also of political dissidents who would face certain death upon their return home. The four have already carried out several other assassinations/murders of people who they judged to be worthy of death on grounds moral, criminal, or both, but were beyond the reach of the law. This threat starts a great hullabaloo among both police and press, and as the wall of protection around the minister gets ever denser, the reader wonders if the Four will be able to pull it off.

Here is a story that stands on shaky moral ground: the one in which the ends justifies the means, however bad the means. Here, four self-appointed judges and executioners threaten to kill a man, not because he is a bad or immoral man, but because they believe that the bill of law he is pushing through parliament is unjust. It very quickly becomes apparent that the plot is about an impossible, closed-room murder, but the story is more about the reactions of the various characters to the situation that develops around the plot.

This is a deft social satire that deals especially harshly with the press, but neither does it spare the police or the intended victim of the crime. The only time it loses the satirical tone is when showing the viewpoint of the Four, who are supposed to be the heroes of the story. The writing is straightforward, neither good nor bad, the plotting is hardly intricate but the author does manage, with a handful of simple twists, to create suspense around the question of whether the Four will be successful or not. The story is written, deliberately I think, in such a way as to make it possible for the reader to be on either side or even to equally support both sides. There are no bad guys in the story, but neither are there any good guys, not unless you are able to look past the fact that the Four are threatening to kill a man who is not inherently a bad or immoral person or a criminal like some of their previous victims, but is merely about to do something they perceive as immoral because of the consequences it will have.

The flaw in the whole plot is of course that killing this one man isn’t going to stop the Bill from going forward. His vote is just one of many, and in the text it is stated that there is a majority in favour, so the point of killing him is merely to show what the Four are capable of, which begs the question: how many others are they prepared to kill to stop the Bill?

I think this story may best be looked at in historical context. Correct me if I’m wrong, but to my knowledge there were no international agreements back then on the rights of refugees and rules governing who could and could not be extradited or sent home. We have such agreements now, and while they are hardly perfect, they are supposed at least protect political refugees from being extradited or sent back (if they can prove they are political refugees). It may be because I take such things for granted, or that I am too simple a person to understand what is supposed to make the reasoning of the Four so just and moral, but I simply can not agree with the reasoning that in this particular case the end justifies the means. To me, these men are terrorists who are trying to prevent a legally elected government official from doing his job, however bad the consequences are going to be.

Looking at the story in context of the history of the mystery and the thriller/suspense story, I can see several things that would be developed further in both genres, and acknowledge the importance of this novel in the crime novel family tree, but I can still only give it 2+ stars, because it fails have on me the intended effect: admiration for the cleverness of the Four and agreement with the moral argument.

Books left in challenge: 67
Place on the list(s): CWA # 100
Awards: None I know of.

Click here to download a free ebook of this novel.


Dorte H said…
I have never read Wallace either, but I know many Americans have claimed Swedish Sjöwall and Wahlöö were influenced by him. According to the couple themselves, they had not read any of his books before they began writing their famous series, though.
Bibliophile said…
That is interesting, Dorte. I have only read this one book by him, but if the social criticism in his other books is the same as in this one, I can see why people would think that he influenced Sjöwall and Wahlöö.

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