In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle escapes to early twentieth-century London with the crime-fighting Four Just Men
There is something irresistibly inspiring about an author who rose from humble beginnings to become popular and successful. J. K. Rowling is the most notable recent example. Charles Dickens went from being put to work in a blacking factory aged 12, after his father was imprisoned for debt, to amassing a fortune of £93,000 – quite a few million in today’s money. But perhaps my favourite ‘rags to riches’ story is that of Edgar Wallace, who was born out of wedlock to two actors in 1875 and adopted by a Billingsgate fish porter. Wallace rose up the journalistic ranks to become a hugely popular – and prolific – writer of thrillers in particular, and was perhaps at one stage the most famous author on the planet. Years later, when he had become a household name, Wallace was asked to contribute to a celebrity feature in a newspaper, titled ‘What I Owe My Parents’. Wallace’s postcard-reply was as long as the feature’s title, at just five words: ‘sorry, cock, I’m a bastard’.
Wallace began life as a reporter, penning dispatches from South Africa during the Boer War among other things. But in 1905 he published his first novel, The Four Just Men: an early example of the ‘locked room’ novel. A summary of The Four Just Men makes it sound like an eerily contemporary scenario: a British politician is going to be murdered, the foreign secretary no less, because a quartet of vigilantes, the Four Just Men of the novel’s title, object to the passing of the 1905 Aliens Act which brought in tighter immigration controls, especially in the wake of an influx of eastern Europeans into Britain. This short novel – it’s really more of a novella – is well-paced, with suspense built effectively over the course of its 100-odd pages, leaving readers scratching their heads until the last chapter as to how the foreign secretary can have been killed. Wallace, a canny publicist, came up with an innovative way to get people talking about his book (and thus boost sales) as it was being serialised: if any reader could submit the correct solution to the mystery before he published the final chapter, they would win £1,000. Unfortunately, Wallace’s solution (which I won’t reveal here, of course) was far easier to guess than he realised, and because he hadn’t stipulated that only the first correct solver of the mystery would be paid, he had to cough up the cash to every single person who solved the murder.
Nevertheless, three more novels and two collections of short stories followed The Four Just Men: The Council of Justice (which failed to live up to the fast-paced excitement of the first book), The Just Men of Cordova (better, and featuring a corrupt banker who makes a fine villain for the vigilante gang to pursue), The Law of the Four Just Men (a sort of ‘adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ collection of shorter mysteries and cases, which are very readable, although there are essentially only two of the four original Just Men involved, George Manfred and Leon Gonsalez), The Three Just Men (another novel), and Again the Three (a final volume of stories). In total, the novels and stories run to nearly 1,000 pages in the cheap Wordsworth reprint I own (pictured above right).
The Complete Four Just Men (Tales of Mystery & the Supernatural) is, in some ways, the literary equivalent of Peaky Blinders: the gang of close-knit associates stand outside of the law, and in the course of these stories and novels we encounter foreign countesses, corrupt financiers, anarchists, gamblers, bookmakers, and racehorses. The picture that emerges is of a Britain caught between the cosy Victorian world of the Sherlock Holmes stories and the edgy danger of post-WWI England that Peaky Blinders captures, with its generation of young men scarred by the war. But Wallace’s men are pre- rather than post-war: although many of the Four Just Men adventures here were penned after the First World War, the world of the Four Just Men remains recognisably Edwardian.
And the influence of Sherlock Holmes, a literary phenomenon which cast a long shadow over late Victorian and Edwardian detective fiction, not to mention much crime/thriller writing ever since, can be felt in the Four Just Men. Sherlock Holmes also took the law into his own hands, going where the police could not in order to solve a crime. He also sometimes made himself judge and jury, a figure of justice, effectively acquitting some criminals of their wrongdoing by announcing that he would not tell the police he had found the guilty person (if the criminal had acted for what Holmes considered just or honourable reasons). The Four Just Men are the flipside of such a private justice system, being judge, jury, and executioner for those who have evaded the law or the police. There’s another Holmes link, particularly once we get to the later short-story collections, in that Leon Gonsalez, one of the best-drawn of the Four Just Men, has an almost Derren-Brown-like interest in physiognomy and reading facial cues and expressions in order to divine the ‘truth’ from people. If you’ve reread the Conan Doyle canon of Sherlock Holmes stories seven times and you’re in search of more of the same, you could do worse than seek out this doorstop edition of the complete Four Just Men stories.
The Complete Four Just Men (Tales of Mystery & the Supernatural) is Wallace’s most enduring literary achievement, although the thing he remains most famous for is writing, or almost writing, the 1933 film King Kong, which he was at work on in Hollywood when he died. But this bumper collection of thrillers and crime stories shows that Wallace’s fiction, or at least the very best of it, is still worth reading.
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.