Publishing history is full of strange tales, and that recounted by Lucy Sussex in “Blockbuster! Fergus Hume & the Mystery of a Hansom Cab” is certainly among the strangest and most poignant. In late 1880s Australia a would-be dramatist decided that he might gain more attention from theater impresarios if he were a published author. So Fergus Hume sat down to produce what ultimately became the best-selling crime novel of the 19th century.

These days, “The Mystery of a Hansom Cab” is frequently derided as ill-written or faintly embarrassing, although such reactions puzzle me. In fact, the novel presents an almost Dickensian, top-to-bottom portrait of Melbourne in its Victorian heyday, when the population of the “London of the South” approached half a million. Moreover, the plotting of the mystery is exemplary. Two gentlemen in formal evening dress, both seemingly drunk, enter a hansom cab late one night in July. Later, one man gets out and disappears, the other remains — and is found dead, apparently murdered. Before the crime is solved, Hume gradually uncovers the hidden threads connecting Melbourne’s most and least respectable citizens, transporting the reader from elegant country houses to the city’s Chinese slums and lowest brothels. The book is certainly worth reading.

"Blockbuster!: Fergus Hume and the Mystery of a Hansom Cab" by Lucy Sussex (Text Publishing)

However, in this engrossing study Sussex is less concerned with the merits of “Hansom Cab” than with its creation, publication and marketing. She focuses on the reclusive Hume’s early life, speculates that he was probably gay and provides thumbnail accounts of the various theater managers, actors, bookstore owners and entrepreneurs whose efforts helped bring about his novel’s immense success.

Fergus Hume was born in one madhouse and grew up in another: His father initially worked as an attendant at the Royal Glasgow Asylum, Gartnavel , but later moved to New Zealand, where he rose to become director of the Dunedin Asylum. From the start, young Fergus revealed a penchant for the sensational. His first prose work, serialized in the local paper, was a science-fiction novel titled “Professor Brankel’s Secret: A Psychological Story.” It concerns, Sussex tells us, “a German professor researching alchemy. In an old book he discovers a secret formula enabling time travel. But it only deals with the past: the rest of the formula, for futuristic travel, is hidden in another volume. So ensues a thrilling tale of bibliographical pursuit, with drug-taking and attempted virgin sacrifice.” I’m surprised it hasn’t been optioned by Hollywood.

At this time, the detective story was just emerging as a distinct genre, drawing inspiration from multiple sources, including Gothic fiction, Poe’s tales of “ratiocination,” memoirs of Bow Street Runners and other early policemen, accounts of actual crimes reported in newspapers and the intricately plotted thrillers of Wilkie Collins (“The Woman in White”) and Mary Braddon (“Lady Audley’s Secret”). By the 1880s, though, the genre was dominated by the newly translated works of French detective story pioneer Émile Gaboriau and by American dime novels featuring such masters of disguise as Old Sleuth. Besides these, Hume almost certainly read contemporary antipodean crime writers such as Mary Fortune, whose stories for “The Detective’s Album ” ran for 40 years in the Australian Journal. Sussex covers this historical material in some detail, being the author of the passionate revisionist study “Women Writers and Detectives in Nineteenth-Century Crime Fiction: The Mothers of the Mystery Genre.”

All too typically, “Hansom Cab” was rejected by one publisher after another. Eventually, Hume entered into a shadowy partnership with a marketing mastermind named Frederick Trischler, who brought the book out in 1886 as a cheap paperback produced by a local job printer. No one is sure of the size of the Australian first edition. Hume said it was 5,000, some modern scholars guess it was much less. Whatever the case, today only four copies are known, and three are damaged.

Even though “Hansom Cab” proved popular in Australia, Hume didn’t believe it would be a success elsewhere. So he sold the copyright for 50 pounds to a banker’s wife, who joined with Trischler in establishing the Hansom Cab Publishing Company. After moving to London, Trischler deluged newspapers with advertisements for the first English edition, promoting the book as if it were Pears soap. The intense PR campaign paid off. According to Sussex, “twenty-five thousand copies a month were printed and sold for fourteen months.” Within a few years, sales approached half a million copies. Hume could have retired for the rest of his life had he retained the copyright.

Instead, a long career on Grub Street became his lot. After leaving Australia for England, he worked in multiple genres, cranking out as many as eight shilling shockers in a single year and never making much money. Hume finally died of heart disease in 1932 at age 73. By then, his fame had long been eclipsed by that of his onetime rival, Arthur Conan Doyle: The first Sherlock Holmes adventure, “A Study in Scarlet,” and the first English edition of “The Mystery of a Hansom Cab” both appeared at Christmas in 1887.

For anyone fond of detective stories or fascinated by publishing history, “Blockbuster!” makes for highly enjoyable and informative reading. Although Sussex never intended a full biography of Hume, I still wish she’d gone on to talk more about his later fiction, which ranges from the occult romance “A Son of Perdition” to the exploits of two series sleuths, the improbable but occasionally anthologized Hagar of the Pawnshop and the utterly forgotten Octavius Fanks of Scotland Yard. Alas, Fergus Hume remains — despite his 140 novels — essentially the author of just one book.

Michael Dirda reviews books on Thursdays in Style. He can be reached at mdirda@gmail.com.

Blockbuster!

Fergus Hume & the Mystery of a Hansom Cab

By Lucy Sussex

Text Publishing. 298 pp. Paperback, $16.95