A most unusual crime novel begins at the Cafe of the Nations on the High Street of Cadiz, where four men sat about one table and talked business. “Leon Gonsalez was one, Poiccart was another, George Manfred was a notable third, and one, Thery, or Saimont, was the fourth.” Of these the narrator notes that Thery “requires no introduction to the student of contemporary history” or “to all students of criminology and physiognomy, Thery must need no introduction.”
These four men discuss the recent death of “a governor of one of the Southern Provinces”, killed in a bombing, and how explosives are an inexact method to kill. We learn they “kill for justice, which lifts us out of the ruck of professional slayers.” When they “see and unjust man oppressing his fellows…and know that by the laws of man this evildoer may escape punishment—we punish.”
Together, it appears, they plot the demise of an English minister who proposes to introduce a parliamentary bill that would threaten the life of Manuel Garcia, leader of a movement that—presumably—brings hope to the people of the country where they reside.
Some time later, in the first chapter, London journalists are agog about one particular news item that leads to this revelation: “Cabinet minister in danger. Threats to murder the foreign secretary. ‘The Four Just Men’. Plot to arrest the passage of the aliens extradition bill—”
A reward is offered for information leading to the “apprehension and conviction of the author of these anonymous letters” to Sir Philip Ramon, the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. Sir Philip believes it “imperative that neither England nor any other country should harbour propagandists who, from the security of these, or other shores, should set Europe ablaze.” The bill was created due to the insecurity of the Spanish succession.
An indiscretion of the Foreign Secretary in revealing particulars of the case leads to a report detailing sixteen counts of murder, from London to Paris to New York and elsewhere, attributed to the “Four Just Men.” These details soon become the talk of London. And during one such discussion, members of Parliament receive a letter from the Four Just Men, urging compliance, and a display of their ability to threaten, by the placement nearby of a device that would be “enough to wreck the House.”
“To say that England was stirred to its depths—to quote more than one leading article on the subject—by the extraordinary occurrence in the House of Commons, would be stating the matter exactly.”
Subsequently a reward is offered for information leading to the capture of the Four Just Men described as “an organised body of criminals.” But this could be deemed a fruitless search as there are no clues to the identity of any of the four men.
Meanwhile, the Four—using aliases—purchase Etherington’s, a photo-engraver’s business, and set up shop. Yet there is suggestion of dissension in the group. Thery is not quite in the same league as the other three, and he later attempts to reveal their plans to the editor of the Megaphone. This act is thwarted, however, and Thery is taken by the others back to their base.
Meanwhile, an “infernal machine” is set up in the office of the editor of the Daily Megaphone along with a letter urging the paper to throw its weight behind endorsing the bill’s down vote. The Megaphone’s editor states: “The letter must have been written on the premises and sealed down within a few seconds of my entering the room.” After this latest outrage, the paper asks the pertinent question, “Will the police save Sir Philip Ramon?”
From today’s perspective, The Four Just Men is a messy novel.
There’s a semblance of attributing the narration to an unnamed journalist, one working for the Daily Megaphone, which figures prominently in parts of the story, and the first to report on the Four. However, this is lost (or abandoned) halfway through. And such a journalist narrator couldn’t possibly be privy to all the events described even if he were narrating them retrospectively.
There’s also a remoteness to the story. Rather like a journalist’s article, the novel presents the events from a bird’s eye view that seldom zooms in too closely. Depth of detail is often lacking. But for a few instances, we never really get into the minds of the array of characters introduced as much as we get generalizations about their thoughts and opinions.
And there is a central flaw…
Of the Four Just Men, only Thery coalesces into something more than a shadow figure. The other three remain as much of a mystery to both the police and the reader! They proclaim they are ‘just’ and are rankled when their actions are compared to the perpetrator of the “atrocious East-End murders.” Yet they threaten to kill a politician for introducing a bill into parliament. They politely warn him—Sir Philip Ramon—to abandon the bill, but it’s never made clear exactly how Sir Philip’s actions could be considered an injustice.
One is inclined to cheer on the police’s efforts to secure the safety of Sir Philip, and yet the novel hinges on the ingenious plot to kill him. At one point, as the whole of England turns its attentions to the fate of the Foreign Secretary, one onlooker states: “We’re waiting for a man to be murdered.” Surely the Four Just Men will make good on their threat to kill? The entire premise of the novel would be a failure if Sir Philip didn’t die.
And yet, despite the shortcomings, the fast-paced story is strangely compelling. It seems impossible that the Four Just Men can pull off their threat. Yet, throughout the story, they are several steps ahead of the police. Even when things go awry, they manage to correct course, leading to the inevitably fateful conclusion.
Chapter Ten’s ominously titled “Three Who Died” delivers an appropriately rousing climax to the story. One that isn’t quite finished. Evidence given at an inquest raises the question of how the murder was committed in a locked room.
In many ways, The Four Just Men is frighteningly prescient in depicting the actions of vigilantes who believe in their cause to disrupt the status quo and terrorize a nation to bring about their aims. How little some things have changed. Yet the novel is a reflection of its era when “a newspaper that has received the stigma ‘yellow’ exercises more caution than its more sober competitors.” A time when sensationalism was barely out of its infancy and yellow journalism was rampant.
The story grabs attention with its sensationalistic elements, drawing you into the narrative, entertaining in the moment, but failing to live up to more careful scrutiny. The Four seem too clever, the police too bumbling, and the ultimate question of who’s cause is “just” isn’t really answered.
The Four Just Men, published in 1905, appears on the Crime Writers’ Association’s 1990 list of the top 100 mysteries of all time. Is it worthy of that placement? I’d say yes and no. As an early example of the genre, Wallace’s novels very likely inspired the spy thrillers and crime capers that followed. And it is worth reading. Though I doubt the novel would remain in the top 100 of an updated list.
Interestingly, the novel nearly bankrupted its author. Unable to find a publisher, Edgar Wallace created his own company and launched a competition to solve the crime (in essence the method of the central murder). The solution was revealed in the final chapter’s publication. This gimmick worked all too well as there were multiple correct answers, and Wallace had failed to factor this into his competition’s rules.
The Four Just Men spawned five sequels, but today, Wallace may be best known for penning the original draft/screenplay for the classic film, King Kong (1933).