Yesterday I took a break from the other vintage novel I'm reading to breeze though an early shilling shocker--Edgar Wallace's The Four Just Men, published in 1909.
The Four Just Men exist for one purpose: to pass and execute sentence of death upon men whose crimes have not or cannot be addressed by the justice system. Brilliant, ruthless, and dedicated, they have never yet known defeat.
Now, they take on their biggest job yet. A Spanish revolutionary determined to topple a corrupt Spanish government has fled to England for sanctuary--but time is running out, for Sir Phillip Ramon, the English Foreign Secretary, is pushing an extradition bill through Parliament. The Four Just Men arrive in London and create a media sensation when they announce that unless Sir Phillip withdraws the Bill, he will be killed. As journalists and detectives throw themselves into a fever of activity, a cordon is put around Sir Phillip, and the Four Just Men make their sinister preparations, it seems impossible that the murderers can succeed. But as they overcome every other obstacle in their path, it seems impossible that they should fail...
This was a very odd book. The most obvious thing was that there was no distinct protagonist through whom to experience the whole story. There are the Four Just Men, of course, but they are hardly protagonists. There's Sir Phillip Ramon, a well-drawn but unlikeable character. There's the detective, Falmouth, but he's not in enough of the story.
The other obvious thing was the dubious morality of the plot. I don't consider the Four Just Men at all justified in their actions, of course. Quite apart from the justice of killing a Cabinet Minister, only the civil government has authority to execute evil-doers. Private individuals have no authority to kill except in self-defence. So the Four "Just" Men are revolutionaries, using revolutionary tactics, and (in this instance) with revolutionary aims.
Perhaps Edgar Wallace understood that the Four "Just" Men were the bad guys (although he does not deal with them either as protagonists or antagonists), and that is why there is no unifying protagonist for the confused and alarmed forces of law and order in London.
This was an interesting and unusual, but ultimately unsatisfying book. I recommend it to people who like to treat a mystery story as a solvable riddle--the book originally appeared without the final chapter which holds the solution, and a prize was offered to those who could give the right explanation. But I have never enjoyed reading puzzles, and with so little encouragement given to hope that the good guys won and the villains got caught, the book was difficult to care about.