Monday, January 07, 2008

The Council of Justice: Edgar Wallace

Whatever else they did or didn’t, the anarchists provided good fodder for crime fiction. G K Chesterton did a wonderful satire on the anarchists in The Man Who Was Thursday; and Edgar Wallace handled them as criminals in The Council of Justice, where the Red Hundred, a motley bunch of anarchists from the continent, are up against the precision and planning of Leon, Manfred and Poiccart.

The Four Just Men was the book that launched Edgar Wallace’s crime fiction writing, and his corresponding fame. The four men – Leon, Manfred, Poiccart and Thery – count among the more popular characters in British crime writing. Avid Wallace fans will recall that Thery featured only in the first book but all the subsequent books still refer to the other three as a quartet. The Council of Justice features Leon, Manfred, and Poiccart with a fourth, interesting-in-his-own-right, member, the Prince of the Escorials, who plays a small but significant role. Jessen, a reformed criminal who now dedicates his life to reforming other criminals with an original approach, is another minor role worthy of mention in The Council. As is the journalist Charles Garrett.

Systematically, as is their wont, the Council (as the just men call themselves in this book) go after the key people in the Red Hundred, eliminating them one after the other, in a style that is so very typical of them. The police, in one of those unusual situations, are as much after the Council as they are against the Red Hundred. With predictably low success.

A key and interesting character in The Council is the mysterious Woman of Gratz – the leader of the Red Hundred who subsequently gives them up and thus falls out of favour. She also plays a key role in the life of Manfred, in an affair tinged with unfulfilled romance, effectively leading to his arrest and therefore, the latter part of The Council.

It is this latter part that adds lustre to The Council. It demands great leaps of imagination to accept the elaborate preparations Leon and Poiccart make to get Manfred out of the jail, and the corresponding climax. But it is precisely this kind of plotting that characterises Edgar Wallace and more so, the four just men. As with most crime fiction, the “what” of the ending is rarely a surprise; it is the “how” that makes it enthralling reading. And The Council really scores on that count. The way Manfred escapes from prison is as unbelievable as it is riveting. And that alone makes The Council worth reading.

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