Edgar Wallace carved a permanent niche in the early twentieth century development of the mystery and detective novel. His books featured heroes and villains who were accessible to the reading public of his generation. Wallace patriotically upheld the British flag in his own life and in the fictional lives of his detectives. In his novels and stories, those who commit murder die for their crimes.
The Four Just Men
The protagonists of The Four Just Men (and others in that series) go above the law when justice is not properly meted out by the courts or when the criminal escapes unpunished. These just men are heroes who redress wrongs and often succeed after the authorities have failed. When Wallace capitalized on this theme, his characters were do-gooders of a romantic cut: Right and wrong were clearly distinguished in these works, the heroes of which persevered until good triumphed over evil.
Within the English-speaking world of the 1920’s, Wallace became a widely read author; even in postwar Germany, he was hailed for his enormous popularity. Most scholars of detective fiction agree that he was instrumental in popularizing the detective story and the thriller. Libraries had to stock dozens of copies of each of his best works for decades. Somehow, Wallace was closely in tune with his times and his readers, as Margaret Lane makes clear in her biography of the writer:“Edgar Wallace,” wrote Arnold Bennett in 1928, “has a very grave defect, and I will not hide it. He is content with society as it is. He parades no subversive opinions. He is ’correct.’” This was a shrewd observation and was never more plainly demonstrated than by Edgar’s newspaper work during the war. It was not that he feared to cross swords with public opinion; he always, most fully and sincerely, shared it.
Wallace shifted from newspaper writing to writing short stories, novels, and plays after his war experiences in South Africa. His natural ability to describe graphically events for readers of daily papers led to longer feature articles that reflected popular opinion. Thrilled with the sight of his own words in print, driven by debt, and born with a sense of ambition and self-confidence, Wallace struggled to find his literary identity. Overly eager to cash in on his first great mystery thriller, The Four Just Men, he published and advertised it himself, offering a reward for the proper solution (which consumed all the income from the novel’s successful sales). By the time The Four Just Men appeared, Wallace had developed the technique that would become the hallmark of much of his mystery and detective fiction. His editor had honed his short stories into very salable copy, and his characters had become real people in the minds of British readers. His biographer Margaret Lane summarizes his maturity in style:He realised, too, that these stories were the best work he had ever done, and that at last he was mastering the difficult technique of the short story. He evolved a favourite pattern and fitted the adventures of his characters to the neat design. He would outline...
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