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Archive for September, 2013

The day job has taken up so much time during the last six months that I haven’t been able to do any of ‘my own’ writing. When times are tough I turn back to old favourites, so I’ve been rereading the work of that great British thriller-writer, Edgar Wallace. Although he died in the early 1930s (while working on the script for the film ‘King Kong’), his books were still being re-published with modern covers and blurbs into the 1970s. They are now available again as classics published by House of Stratus and Wordworth editions, are available as e-books and ready for a new 21st-century audience. Although they originated in a world with no computers, mobile phones or TV, where cars broke down regularly and the normal means of crossing the Atlantic was by ship, and although many of their attitudes are extremely dated (only once does Wallace allow one of his heroines to fire a hand gun successfully!), they are still a thrilling read.

Wallace’s politics were conservative with a small ‘c’. Although he was very supportive of the police force and many of his heroes are police officers, many of his stories centred on characters who took the law into their own hands to right wrongs — the Ringer and the Four Just Men being the most famous. The Four Just Men, as David Stuart Davies points out in his introduction to the Wordsworth Complete Edition, are what we would now call terrorists: they kill people to achieve a political end. In Wallace’s first novel about them, published in 1906, they threaten to kill a British cabinet minister who is about to pass a bill which will deport political refugees back to their home country, where they may be arrested, tortured and imprisoned or killed. British readers will remember that the British Home Secretary (‘Justice Secretary’) Theresa May has been trying to deport such political agitators recently, and only succeeded after multiple attempts. Edgar Wallace imagined such a situation over a century ago, and in his imagined world the Four Just Men kill the cabinet minister rather than allow him to send freedom-fighters to their deaths,

Humm. A dangerous creed. But his thriller was a best seller. Wallace succeeded in making both the threatened cabinet minister and the Four Just Men sympathetic. He kept his readers on the edge of their seats from beginning to end. There was humour, heart-stopping moments, a gasp of astonishment at the denouement. And at the end, the reader isn’t sure who were the real heroes and villains, but wanting to read more,

Wallace wrote more: three more full length books and two collections of short stories. Two of the full-length novels are disappointing: The Council of Justice and The Just Men of Cordova are not as tightly plotted as The Four Just Men, and the Four (down to three by this time) aren’t well developed as characters. The short stories begin to flesh them out: George Manfred, the leader of the Just Men, is English and aristocratic; Poiccart is a chemist, and has a house in Spain where he grows onions and keeps pigs; Leon Gonsalez is Spanish, is an expert on physiognomy but is also a chemist, has grey hair but looks young; and all three are very rich. It is not until the fourth novel, The Three Just Men, that we really get to know them well, as they are swept up into a typical Wallace thriller complete with an evil German-speaking inventor who has discovered a means of killing people silently and without trace, and who is trying to kidnap a young woman who unbeknownst to herself is a wealthy heiress. Leon Gonsalez discovers that his oath of chastity (the Four Just Men have sworn off all human relations) is not enough to prevent his falling for the heroine, Mirabelle Leicester, who is one of Wallace’s sensible heroines — no wonder she is allowed to wield a gun, although eventually this isn’t enough to prevent her being kidnapped (Wallace heroines always need to take care about stepping outside at night). Leon’s susceptibility to Mirabelle may be excused; after all, Mirabelle fell for him first. At the end of the book, Poiccart (we discover his first name in this book: Raymond) and George Manfred discuss Leon’s strange behaviour: can he be in love? Will this mean the dissolution of the Three Just Men?

Another collection of short stories followed this novel, which ends with Leon going back to the bad old days and killing a man in the name of justice; but the question remains: did Leon marry Mirabelle? No, no, you cry, the Just Men aren’t allowed to marry. However, in 1939 the famous Ealing Studios made a film of The Four Just Men, in which when the Fourth has died (killed by a German spy — this was in the dark days running up to the outbreak of war), he is replaced by a young woman journalist, Ann, the friend of the youngest and most good looking of the remaining Three. The names of the Four Men are mixed up in this film version, but we may humbly suggest that if Wallace had lived he might have been persuaded to follow Ealing’s suggestion and allow Mirabelle to join the Three as Leon’s wife.

In a later era the 1939 film would have been the start of a TV series: it has all the makings of a great weekly serial. In the circumstances of WW2, no such serial was possible. A TV series was made in the USA in 1959, but apart from the name and the general activities of the Four as vigilantes, it bore no relation to the original.

Nowadays, as I remarked at the beginning, the Four Just Men would be terrorists. Surely no one would resort to such activities today? But yesterday’s news reported that a vigilantes group had tracked down and arrested a paedophile, and brought him to court — the police, they say, would never have followed up the case. Perhaps the Four Just Men are still with us.

PS: A month later: reading Jack Adrian’s edited collection of Edgar Wallace short stories, The Death Room (1986), I found another Four Just Men story — or, rather, the original novella from which The Just Men of Cordova was developed. ‘The Poisoners’ makes a lot more sense than The Just Men of Cordova, and is altogether a much better story. Jack Adrian explains that ‘The Poisoners’, like The Four Just Men, was published as a puzzle story for which readers had to supply their own ending. Clearly Wallace had problems finishing off stories … all the more reason for modern readers to try their hand at supplying them.

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