As someone who reads mostly English books I rarely come across a local reference. So, I had to smile when I read that the main suspect in The Mystery of a Hansom Cab had been spotted being driven along Powlett St, East Melbourne. I was sitting in a doctor’s surgery (waiting for my sister who has had successful foot surgery) just around the corner from Powlett St as I read those words. That was one of the charms of this book for me, the references to Melbourne. Melbourne was a boom town in the mid-ninetteenth century thanks to the Ballarat gold rush & was known as Marvellous Melbourne. Many of the buildings of that period have survived & the city centre hasn’t changed that much since 1886 when this book was written so I could visualise where the action was taking place.
The Mystery of a Hansom Cab is one of the most successful detective stories ever written. The author, Fergus Hume, was an Englishman who came out to Australia as many young men did in those days. He was looking for adventure & a way to make a living. He wanted to write plays but nobody would produce them. So, he asked a bookseller what kind of books sold well & he was told it was detective stories. He wrote The Mystery of a Hansom Cab, sold the copyright for £50 & never saw another penny of profit from the 750,000 copies sold during his lifetime. Someone else even turned it into a play & made money from that. Hume only spent two years in Melbourne, then returned to England. He wrote over 100 other books but never matched the runaway success of his first book, which has been cited as an influence by writers such as Agatha Christie & has never been out of print.
The Mystery of a Hansom Cab is still immensely readable & includes several very modern aspects. The book opens with a newspaper account of a baffling murder that had taken place two nights before. A drunken man was put into a cab by another man & the cabby was directed to take him home. The second man got out of the cab soon after. However, when the driver stopped to ask his fare for directions not long afterwards, the man in the cab was dead. The driver took him to the police station & it was discovered that he had been suffocated with a chloroform soaked handkerchief bearing the initials OW. There was no clue as to the dead man’s identity or the identity of the man who had travelled with him.
The murder was a particularly clever one. A hansom cab is the perfect location for murder as the driver sits at the back of the cab & can’t see inside. The murdered man had no identification on him & the murderer was dressed in evening clothes with a light coat & wide-brimmed hat, a costume worn by many men, including most of the suspects in the book.
The case is handed to police detective Gorby, who soon discovers that the dead man was Oliver Whyte, a young man who is connected to the highest levels of Melbournr society. Whyte was part of the social circle of Mark Frettlby, one of the richest men in the city, & is pursuing Frettlby’s daughter, Madge. Madge, however, is in love with Brian Fitzgerald, an Irishman who has come to Melbourne to make his fortune. Frettlby has encouraged Whyte’s suit although he knows his daughter is in love with another man. Whyte & Fitzgerald are therefore on bad terms & Fitzgerald has been heard to threaten Whyte at his lodgings. Fitzgerald also wears a light coat & wide brimmed hat. Gorby is convinced he’s found the murderer, especially when Fitzgerald refuses to provide an alibi for the time of the murder.
Mark Frettlby hires an ambitious lawyer, Calton, to defend Fitzgerald. Calton & another detective, Kilslip, are convinced that Gorby has arrested the wrong man & set out to prove it. Kilslip has been a rival of Gorby’s for years & his motives are more to do with this rivalry than with any conviction of Fitzgerald’s innocence. The trail leads them from the Collins St Block, the milieu of the rich & titled to Little Bourke St, the haunt of the destitute & the criminal. These two streets are only a block apart but many miles apart in every other way. It’s in Little Bourke St that Fitzgerald’s alibi is found, in the rundown tenement where old Mother Guttersnipe lies in an alcoholic stupor & a mysterious woman who asked to see Fitzgerald, died on the same night as the murder took place.
Fitzgerald refuses to reveal the secret whispered to him by the dying woman but Calton successfully defends him on the murder charge anyway, thanks to the appearance at the last possible moment of Sal Rawlins, old Mother Guttersnipe’s granddaughter, who confirms his alibi. Then, Calton, with help from Kilslip & Madge must work to discover the murderer of Oliver Whyte & the nature of the secret that Fitzgerald refuses to divulge.
The Mystery of a Hansom Cab is an absorbing mystery with a mix of realism & melodrama that is very exciting. Brian & Madge are pretty stock characters but some of the supporting players, such as Calton, Kilslip the dogged detective & Fitzgerald’s garrulous & mournful landlady are more interesting. There are more than enough secrets to be discovered to keep the pace moving along. The mix of high society & lowlife is also interesting & the solution of the mystery is bound up with respectability, that most important attribute of Victorian society. The lengths that several characters go to to keep up the facade of their respectability is indicative of that importance & it’s something that can be seen in many other novels of the same period. At just over 250pp, I also think it’s about the perfect length for a detective novel.
I borrowed the e-book of The Mystery of a Hansom Cab from my library & it’s part of a new initiative by Text Publishing here in Melbourne. Text have brought out a range of Australian classics with new introductions, most of which had fallen out of print. It was in response to comments in the press that universities weren’t teaching Australian literature anymore. It became a circular argument – it wasn’t taught because the books weren’t in print therefore teachers couldn’t read & set the books for their students therefore… Michael Heyward at Text took up the challenge & did something about it. It’s a fantastic initiative & I’ve filled a lot of gaps in my library’s collection & bought several titles, including The Mystery of a Hansom Cab, as Bookclub sets. They’re all available as paperbacks or e-books & the paperbacks are only $12.95 which is a great price. I love publishers who bring back the classics of the past & make them available so hooray for Text Publishing!