Book review: The 1886 ‘Mystery of a Hansom Cab’ has murder and a kitschy charm

March 26

Written by a young lawyer from New Zealand and set in Melbourne, Australia, “The Mystery of a Hansom Cab” was self-published in 1886 and its copyright then sold for 50 pounds to a group of speculators. This doesn’t sound like a recipe for Victorian best sellerdom. Yet by the time of Fergus Hume’s death, 750,000 copies of his book had been printed, half that number within six months of its 1887 publication in London. By comparison, the other mystery novel of that year, “A Study in Scarlet” — which introduced Sherlock Holmes to the world — was scarcely noticed. “The Mystery of a Hansom Cab” became the most commercially successful detective novel of the 19th and early 20th century.

Hume (1859-1932) — an exact contemporary of Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) — went on to write scores of other books, but none ever matched his first in popularity. As the years passed, though, “The Mystery of a Hansom Cab” was increasingly disparaged. For instance, Howard Haycraft, in “Murder for Pleasure,” dubbed it a “shoddy pot-boiler.” However, Julian Symons, in “Bloody Murder,” did grant that it was “a reasonably good imitation of Gaboriau, containing some convincing scenes of low life.” (Émile Gaboriau was the pioneering figure in French detective fiction, his books focusing on police work, inquests, wills and documents, and the more social-legal aspects of crime.)

As a puzzle, “The Mystery of a Hansom Cab” certainly isn’t especially tricky by modern standards, but that lack of subtlety only enhances its slightly kitschy charm. An enjoyable period piece, Hume’s book is the novelistic equivalent of sentimental Victorian melodrama. One character actually says, “She is mine; and you can’t do anything,” and another shouts back, “I can kill you, an’ if you marry ’er I’ll do it, even in the open street.” In his introduction to this paperback edition from Text Classics, Simon Caterson argues further that the novel’s “panoramic depiction of a bustling yet uneasy” Melbourne gives it “a central place in Australian literary history.”

Here is the plot (without spoilers), as summarized early on by Mr. Gorby, a distinctly proletarian detective with the police force:

“Here’s a man — well, say a gentleman — who gets drunk, and, therefore, don’t know what he’s up to. Another gent who is on the square comes up and sings out for a cab for him — first he says he don’t know him, and then he shows plainly that he does — he walks away in a temper, changes his mind, comes back and gets into the cab, after telling the cabby to drive down to St Kilda. Then he polishes the drunk one off with chloroform, gets out of the cab, jumps into another, and after getting out at Powlett Street, vanishes. . . . There are three things to be discovered — First, Who is the dead man? Second, What was he killed for? And Third, Who did it?”


“The Mystery of a Hansom Cab” by Fergus Hume (Text Classics)

Gorby soon determines that the murder centers on a capricious young heiress, Madge Frettlby, two rivals for her hand, and a mysterious document torn from a hidden pocket in the dead man’s vest. A suspect is eventually arrested, but one who staunchly maintains his innocence while refusing to offer an alibi. “I could tell you where I was on that night, and save myself,” he eventually tells the woman he loves, “but if I did, you would learn a secret which would curse your life, and I dare not speak — I dare not.” Meanwhile, Hume shifts the action from elegant homes to men’s clubs to bachelor apartments to the back alleys of Melbourne.

Is Gorby the novel’s hero? When asked about the identity of the murderer, he does answer with Sherlockian bravado: “I have an idea — but I am not certain — when I am certain, I’ll speak.” In fact, the book features no great sleuth-hound in the manner of Holmes or Poirot. Instead, Hume shares the detection among a half-dozen characters. Gorby tracks his man; the witty lawyer Calton probes the suspect for the truth; Madge searches her lover’s apartment to find a clue; a rival to Gorby named Kilsip seeks information among the drunks and criminals of Little Bourke Street. Meanwhile, the case advances then reverses itself, growing ever more complicated and eventually including a message from a dying woman known as “the Queen,” the last-minute appearance of a key witness and — that old standby — a secret from the past.

For the most part, “The Mystery of a Hansom Cab” is written in flatly standard English, though its subsidiary charactersusually speak in comic dialect. Take the landlady, Mrs. Sampson:

“She was a small, dried-up little woman, with a wrinkled yellow face, and looked so parched and brittle that strangers could not help thinking it would do her good if she were soaked in water for a year, in order to soften her a little. Whenever she moved she crackled, and one was in constant dread of seeing one of her wizen-looking limbs break off short, like the branch of a dead tree.”

Mrs. Sampson in full Dickensian voice chatters in a verbalized Cockney stream of consciousness, enhanced by the occasional malapropism. Speaking irrelevantly of her sailor brother, she says that “when ’e ’ad done a meal, the table looked as if a low-cuss ’as gone over it.” “A what?” asks her young lodger. “ ‘A low-cuss,’ replied the landlady in surprise at his ignorance, ‘as I’ve read in ’Oly Writ, as ’ow John the Baptist was partial to ’em, not that I think they’d be very fillin’, tho’ to be sure ’e ’ad a sweet tooth, and ate ’oney with ’em.’ ” Mrs. Sampson later explains her command of English as something she inherited from her mother’s second cousin, who once won a spelling bee, though he later died of brain fever, having “crowded ’is ’ead over much with the dictionary.”

Despite its early place in the history of the detective novel, “The Mystery of a Hansom Cab” already possesses, rather surprisingly, an air of belatedness. Hume’s characters refer to Poe, Gaboriau’s novels, Anna Katharine Green’s “The Leavenworth Case,” and De Quincey’s essay on murder as one of the fine arts. One young social climber even fancies himself an amateur sleuth. In short, a “real life” crime is perceived through the lens of a familiar genre literature.

Why was “The Mystery of a Hansom Cab” such a phenomenal success? I think because it’s the detective story equivalent of the kitchen sink. There’s social comedy and commentary throughout, Wilkie Collins-like plotting, an apparent locked-room murder, misdirection, a suspenseful trial scene, close attention to the time of key events, a plucky girl, solid police work and even sleepwalking brought on by a guilty conscience. All in all, Fergus Hume is certainly worth sampling. I’ve even been told that “Madame Midas” (Text Classics) is his real masterpiece. The stories in “Hagar of the Pawn Shop” also sound appealing: In the one I’ve just read, its gypsy heroine deduces that a black West African woman is actually a dissolute young white man in disguise!

Dirda reviews for Book World every Thursday.

THE MYSTERY OF A HANSOM CAB

By Fergus Hume

Text Classics. 410 pp. Paperback, $14.95

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