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Old 11-12-2007, 04:00 AM   #1
HarryT
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Post Wallace, Edgar: The Four Just Men. v2. 12 Nov 07

"The Four Just Men", first published in 1905, was the novel that made Edgar Wallace famous as a writer of detective thrillers. A Spanish resistance leader's safety in England is threatened by the passage through Parliament of the Aliens Extradition Bill. The minister responsible receives a message from four mysterious figures, "The Four Just Men", warning him that he faces death unless he withdraws the legislation. Edgar Wallace maintains the suspense and excitement as the police struggle to protect the minister before the deadline imposed by the conspirators is reached.

There is a story behind this book, told as follows (slightly edited by me), in Wikipedia:

Edgar went to Europe as a correspondent during the 1904-1905 Russo-Japanese War. Whilst in the Balkans he met British and Russian spies and was inspired. Returning to England in 1905 he had in his head The Four Just Men, the prototype of the modern blood-and-thunder thriller about four young, handsome, immensely wealthy vigilantes (including a European prince) who kill in the name of Justice.

Writing the story of the FJM who would kill the Foreign Secretary if he tried to ratify an unjust law, Edgar had to form his own publishing company, Tallis, to print it. Undeterred, he decided to run a "guess the murder method" competition in the Daily Mail with a prize of £1,000. The competition would be a runaway success because Edgar intended to advertise the book on a scale unprecedented not just in Britain but across the Empire.

He approached the owner of the newspaper, Alfred Harmsworth, for the loan of the £1,000 and was promptly refused. Edgar wasn't really suited to editorship as he preferred to spend his afternoons at the racecourse or poker table; Harmsworth in turn was irriated by the fact that Edgar was so difficult to get hold of instead of being on the other end of the phone awaiting "his master's voice" like the other editors. Completely unfazed, Edgar pressed ahead - his alarmed workmates at the Mail prevailed upon him to lower the prize money to £500: a £250 first prize, £200 second prize and £50 third prize, but were unable to restrain him in the privacy of his home. Edgar took out adverts on buses, hoardings, flyers, and so forth, running up an incredible bill of £2,000. Though he knew he needed the book to sell sufficient copies to make £2,501 before he saw any profit, Edgar was confidently aware this would be achieved in the first three months of the book going on sale, totally unaware he was hopelessly underestimating things.

Forging ahead with enthusiasm but no real idea what he was doing, Edgar had also made a far more serious error. He ran the FJM serial competition in the Daily Mail but failed to include any limitation clause in the competition rules restricting payment of the prize money to one winner only from each of the three categories. Only after the competition had closed and the correct solution printed as part of the final chapter denouement did Edgar learn that he was legally obligated to pay every person who answered correctly the full prize amount in that category; if 6 people got the 1st Prize answer right, he would have to pay not £250 but 6x£250, or £1500, if 3 people got the 2nd Prize it would be £600 and so on. Additionally, though his advertising gimmick had worked as the FJM novel was a bestseller, Edgar discovered that instead of his woefully over-optimistic 3 months, FJM would have to continue selling consistently with no margin of error for 2 full years to recoup the £2,500 he had mistakenly believed he needed to break even. Horror was added to shock when the number of entrants correctly guessing the right answer continued to inexorably rise.

Edgar's answer was to simply ignore the situation, but circumstances were coming together ominously. Newspapers were expected to be "gold standards" of truth and accountability; any that even mistakenly published articles that were found to be incorrect, inaccurate or misleading could very quickly be driven to bankruptcy and public humiliation.

As 1905 became 1906 and headed for 1907 without any list of prize winners being run, more and more suspicions were being voiced about the honesty of the competition. In addition, to a working-class Edwardian family, £250 was a fortune and since those who were winners knew it (courtesy of the published solution) they had been waiting daily for the prize cheque to hit the doormat. Friction already existed between the autocratic Harmsworth and his elusive editor, and Harmsworth, having refused the initial £1,000 loan was furious at having to now loan Edgar over £5,000 to protect the paper's reputation because Edgar couldn't pay.

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