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The good terrorists

When I first read Edgar Wallace’s The Four Just Men (1905) I thought it was one of the most shocking books I’d ever read.  I mean that literally: the ending left me bewildered.

Wallace was a writer who just churned out stuff on a prodigious scale – mostly low-grade, thrilling page-turners, the sort of fiction that people read but critics ignore – and The Four Just Men was one of those. As I am writing a book on how fiction depicts politics I felt obliged to read the book – and it was with a heavy heart (as a veteran of too many Edwina Currie novels) that I began my task.

The Four Just Men is the story of how a group of glamorous, continental European vigilantes possessed of almost superhuman powers of ingenuity  – they are described as ‘ubiquitous as well as omnipotent’ – seek to prevent Sir Philip Ramon, the British Foreign Secretary , from pushing through his Aliens Extradition Bill. For they believe this legislation will result in the deportation of numerous continental freedom fighters who had found a safe haven in Britain. Once back home and in the hands of their corrupt and oppressive governments such individuals, the Four Just Men fear, would be imprisoned or killed. So, they send a letter to Ramon – which in the context is very respectful and civilized – explaining these concerns and outline what will happen should he persist with the Bill: he will die.

The Foreign Secretary however believes that his Bill will rid Britain of an unwanted criminal element, that he is honour-bound to live up to commitments already given to foreign governments – and that he must ‘vindicate the integrity of a Minister of the Crown’. The Four Just Men, after all, stand outside the law and have unilaterally assumed the powers of judge and jury: Ramon is in contrast a democratically elected representative of the people.

In the face of Ramon’s resolve, the Four Just Men demonstrate their ability to murder him, if necessary. The press and public becomes involved in the hunt for the men and as the moment at which the Bill passes through Parliament arrives – and so the time when the Four Just Men say they will execute Ramon – crowds gather in Westminster to show their support for the Foreign Secretary.

At this point I assumed Wallace would feel obliged to vindicate British Parliamentary democracy and the rule of law. Surely, the Four Just Men – with the irredeemably foreign names of Manfred, Gonsalez, Poiccart and Thery – would fail? For this was an Edwardian pot-boiler, one serialised in the Daily Mail and written by a future Liberal Parliamentary candidate (for Blackpool, by the way). This was also a time in which the historian James Vernon has claimed the British constitution was ‘deeply embedded within English culture’, being ‘central to the way people imagined themselves’. And yet, despite this – and all the police protection – Ramon dies. Hence my shock.

I read the novel again to try and work out what was going on. Then, I think, I found the explanation. While Ramon is not a bad person he is hardly a sympathetic character. Wallace describes him as a man ‘with that shade of blue in his eyes that one looks for in peculiarly heartless criminals, and particularly famous generals’. He has few friends, no family and induces only fear amongst colleagues. Ramon is a ‘cold-blooded, cynical creature … He was the most dangerous man in the Cabinet, which he dominated in his masterful way, for he knew not the meaning of the blessed word “compromise”’. So, Ramon, the almost inhuman, ultimate, political animal dies because he refused to compromise – the salve of representative democracy – and to recognize that the other fellow might have a point. But, of course, the other fellows in Wallace’s novel are terrorists, albeit men he presents as probably having right on their side.

What was Wallace saying? Did he and his readers even know?  The book was serialised in the Daily Mail and to induce interest Wallace promised to personally pay a cash prize to readers who correctly predicted exactly how the mystery would end. As it turned out Ramon was electrocuted by his telephone. I didn’t see that coming, but then neither did he. Wallace unfortunately failed to notice that the small print of the competition rules did not limit the number of winners – and there were quite a few. If this oversight ruined him it also suggests that it was the ingenuity of the plot that preoccupied the author, and his readers, rather than the possible politics of the work.

Whatever were the author’s intentions and his readers’ reception, if only to pay off his debts Wallace wrote more Four Just Men stories. Rowing back from the subversive implications of the first novel, in these tales they are eventually pardoned and ultimately side with the rule of law. Moreover, when the novel was turned into a film in 1921, while the Four Just Men are still foreigners Ramon has become a bad factory owner, meaning that the awkward political questions originally raised by Wallace could be side-stepped. Taking this process further, the 1939 film version turns the Four Just Men into Great War veterans intent on defending the British national interest. Finally, when the novel was transformed into a 1959 TV series designed for the Anglo-American market, just one of the men is British, but he is an MP played by the redoubtable Jack Hawkins. By this point the inconvenient ambiguities of the 1905 novel had all been ironed out, or ‘dumbed-down’, some might say.

Edgar Wallace, if he evokes any kind of recognition today, is best known as the man who created King Kong. He should however also be remembered as the man who suggested – knowingly or not – that there were some occasions when it might be a good idea for politicians to compromise with foreign terrorists – and that in the Edwardian Daily Mail! A provocative thought, in these times.

Steven Fielding

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