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Jesse Kornbluth

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They're Not Cops. But They Kill For Justice. They're 'The Four Just Men'

Posted: 08/10/11 09:03 AM ET

There is an American homeowner who is spending 20 months in jail for putting false financial information on his mortgage application. The banker who directed him to swear to that false information? He testified against his client and got 10 months. But then, no bankers who committed fraud during the last decade have been aggressively prosecuted -- and it's not like we don't know their names.

Polluters? You'll find a guided tour of companies that dump toxic chemicals in the neighborhoods of African Americans and the poor in Steve Lerner's book; like the Koch brothers, they pay fines that never threaten their profits. The lives they wreck? Not even rounding errors.

And then there are our bought-and-paid-for politicians who support legislation that, as they well know, will improve the quality of life only for those who already shop at Bergdorf's -- and there's nothing we can do about it except throw these bums out and bring on the next crew of bought-and-paid-for pols.

Infuriating, isn't it? And worse -- it feels as if there's nothing meaningful you can do about any of it.

But what if you could do something -- about unindicted criminals and about policies we know to be wrong but are in no danger of being criminalized?

Impossible? Not if you're one of the fictional characters known as the "Four Just Men."

As Edgar Wallace tells it in his short novel, in the early years of the last century, this fearsome foursome -- George Manfred, Leon Gonsalez, Raymond Poiccart, and a man known simply as Thery -- assassinated the leader of the Servian Regicides, shot a "poet-philosopher" whose sick thinking corrupted a generation of young people, and hanged a leader of the French Army in the Place de la Concorde.

Vigilantes? You can call them that. But they don't act like hate-filled zealots. The Four Just Man are civilized. They advise their targets they are guilty of crimes. They tell their targets to reform. They alert their targets to the date of their death. They even give their targets a final warning -- delivered in person. As the author notes, "The honesty of the Four was their most terrible characteristic." Honesty -- how thrilling. [To read the book online for free, click here. To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

Now the Four Just Men have a new target: Philip Ramon, the Foreign Secretary of Great Britain. He is a public servant of unquestioned integrity with a conscience in working order. And yet he is about to commit a crime. A legal crime. But a crime nonetheless: His proposed legislation -- The Alien Extradition Act of 1905 -- would send a great Spanish social reformer, currently directing his followers from a safe perch in England, back to Spain. Once there, the corrupt government would kill him.

No reasonable Brit wants this to happen. But the Four Just Men are not like those of us who read the newspapers and bitch. Because they believe Sir Philip is a good man with a single blind spot, they have sent word to him: Drop the bill, or die. Naturally, almost every policeman in London is assigned to protect Sir Philip. The question is: Are they up to the task? Can they even identify the Four Just Men?

Very quickly you will get past the moral question -- terrorists? vigilantes? heroes? -- and find yourself lost in the whodunnit. And the howtheydunnit. You may even find yourself rooting for The Four Just Men.

How does it end? Glad you asked. Edgar Wallace held a contest when he published this novel, offering 500 pounds -- not a small sum in 1905 -- for the correct answers to some esoteric questions about the ending. Several readers guessed the answers. Wallace lost money. Or did he? For Wallace hyped The Four Just Men as if it were a new flavor of Coca Cola. He took out full-page newspaper ads, put posters on subways and buses, even advertised in the movies. The publicity launched his career.

And Wallace went on to become the most famous writer in the world.

He was quick -- he could write a novel in a weekend. He was good. And he was prolific: 175 books, 24 plays and countless articles. The only title known to the contemporary reader? King Kong. Maybe you've heard of it.

'We kill for justice,' claim the Four Just Men. On that morally uncertain but dramatically delicious boast rests the second of Edgar Wallace's titles that the world should remember -- and relish.

BONUS VIDEO

The Four Just Men grew up to be a popular English television series. Here's a promo:

[Cross-posted from HeadButler.com]