The Mystery of a Hansom Cab – Fergus Hume

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!

6 thoughts on “The Mystery of a Hansom Cab – Fergus Hume

  1. Lyn, this argument applies to so many writers! I'd love to expand the Golden Age canon, but it's hard to do so when the book are only available to genre collectors. I wrote the “Masters of the 'Humdrum' Mystery” in part to get information out on other writers of the period.

    On Hume, I think he is an interesting case. I did a piece on the first mystery he publsiehd after moving to England, the Piccadilly Puzzle. It's not nearly as good as Hansom Cab, but I had a lot of fun with a review attacking the book in the journal Zealandia and the story of what happened to the reviewer.

    http://thepassingtramp.blogspot.com/2011/12/tale-of-mr-fergus-hume-and-mr-william.html

    By the way, twenty-some years later Hume belatedly tried to follow up Hansom Cab with a book called, as I recollect, The Mystery of a Motor Car!

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  2. I don't recall having heard of this book until there was talk of a new movie or series that is being made for the ABC (I think). It sounds like a good read. There is something pretty special about reading a setting that you are familiar with!

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  3. Isn't it amazing how many of the innovators of the mystery wrote one good book & then nothing else of much interest? Mystery of a Motor Car just doesn't have the same ring to it! Your article on Piccadilly Puzzle & the review is fascinating. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black…

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  4. Yes, I think there is a TV movie of it on the way. The text reprint reminded me of it again so I've finally read it! I did enjoy the local references.

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  5. Thanks to the link to your review. I think we pretty much agree on the book's merits. The only thing that really annoyed me was in the passage you quoted about the broiling hot day in July. I can't believe that. Even 100 years ago July was still the middle of winter. I do like his suggestion about Greek dress in summer, though. Very sensible.

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