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Fergus W. Hume, The mystery of a hansom cab (Review)

January 28, 2012
Hume Mystery of a Hansom Cab

The mystery of a hansom cab (Courtesy: Sydney University Press)

Sometimes you just have to break your reading “rules” don’t you? Two of mine are that I’m not much into detective fiction (despite having reviewed Peter Temple’s Truth here) and I don’t read self-published books – but then along came Fergus Hume‘s The mystery of a hansom cab. It’s a classic Australian crime novel – and it was “originally” self-published (says she cheekily)!

I’m not, you now know, an aficionado of crime fiction, so my assessment of this book may be the skewed one of a newbie not versed in the intricacies of crime writing. However, I must say that I found this a thoroughly enjoyable and engaging book, and would recommend it to crime and non-crime readers alike, for reasons that will soon become obvious. But first, the plot.

The story commences with a newspaper report of a murder that takes place in a hansom cab, and over the next few chapters we learn the name of the victim (a young man, Oliver Whyte, who was drunk at the time of his death) and that he was killed by a passenger who got into the cab, ostensibly to see him safely home. The detective on the case fairly quickly deduces that the murderer is a rival for the affections of a young society woman … and from here, as it always does, the plot thickens. The accused murderer declares his innocence, that he indeed has an alibi, but he will not divulge the information it would “curse” the life of his fiancée. The trial occurs and is resolved halfway through the novel. The rest explores … but wait, if I tell you this, I’ll give too much away, so I’ll stop here. The resolution, when it comes, is not a complete surprise but neither is it completely predictable. At least, not to non-aficionado me.

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Now, why do I like it? To start with, it’s a well-told story, with nicely delineated characters. Then there’s the setting: it is primarily set in Melbourne, with a little excursion into the country, in the 1880s. This was a boom-time for what was known then as “Marvellous Melbourne” and Hume describes life in this well-to-do post-Gold Rush city with gorgeous clarity. Most of it concerns the middle classes – the professionals and self-made men – but we are also taken into the slums where prostitutes struggle to survive. Hume does not have the social justice goals of, say, William Lane (in The workingman’s paradise) but he doesn’t shy from describing some of the seamier aspects of the city:

Kilsip and the barrister kept for safety in the middle of the alley, so that no one could spring upon them unaware, and they could see sometimes on the one side, a man cowering back into the black shadows, or on the other, a woman with disordered hair and bare bosom, leaning out of a window trying to get a breath of fresh air … Kilsip, turning to the left, led the barrister down another and still narrower lane, the darkness and gloom of which made the lawyer shudder, as he wondered how human beings could live in such murky places.

Hume then describes the woman they had gone to meet, Mother Guttersnipe (how Dickensian is that?):

… a repulsive-looking old crone; and in truth, her ugliness was, in its very grotesqueness well worthy the pencil of a Doré.

This brings me to another aspect I enjoyed. It is chockablock with allusions to Shakespeare and the classics, and references to what the writer of the introduction describes as the “middle-brow, middle-class, international entertainment culture of North America and Europe”, such as the artist Doré, the composer Offenbach, and the writers Poe, Dickens and De Quincy. There’s also a cheeky reference to novelist Mrs Braddon – “Murdered in a cab … a romance in real life, which beats Mrs Braddon hollow” – containing a clue that readers of the time might have picked up.

There’s the 19th century style – third person omniscient, descriptive chapter titles, a touch (but not too much) of melodrama, light satire and humour, the use of little homilies (often to introduce chapters), and a (very) neatly tied up conclusion. This is not ponderous, heavy-handed 19th century writing, but good well-paced story-telling supported by lovely description and observations. Most of the light relief comes through minor characters, like the landlady Mrs Sampson and the young-man-about-town Felix Rolleston. Here is Mrs Sampson:

She was a small, dried-up little woman, with a wrinkled yellow-ish face. She seemed parched up and brittle. Whenever she moved she crackled, and one went in constant dread of seeing a wizen-looking limb break off short like the branch of some dead tree. When she spoke it was in a voice hard and shrill, not unlike the chirp of a cricket.

She is, for all this, a warm-hearted woman, but whenever she appears so do such words as “crackle’, “rustle”, and “chirp”. Beautifully vivid, but nicely controlled.

It is of course also 19th century in its worldview … and so has a patriarchal flavour. Our “plucky” heroine, Madge, buys “a dozen or more articles she did not want” writes the author. And in the resolution the men decide what they will and will not share with the women involved – “it would be useless to reveal” the truth to one female character as “such a relevation could bring her no pecuniary benefit”, and to another because “such a relation could do no good, and would only create a scandal”. The infantilisation of women, eh?

Fate also makes its appearance in the novel, from early on when the accused murderer’s life “hangs on a mere chance” to late in the novel when the author makes his position clear. He writes that men:

… created a new deity called Fate, and laid any misfortune which happened to them to her charge. Her worship is still very popular, especially among lazy and unlucky people, who never bestir themselves … After all, the true religion of fate has been preached by George Eliot when she says that our lives are the outcome of our actions. Set up any idol you please upon which to lay the blame of unhappy lives and baffled ambitions, but the true cause is to found in men themselves.

I’ve said it before, and I’m sure I’ll be saying it again: I could write on and on about this book. It has so much to explore and it would be fun to do so, but at this point I’ll simply recommend it to you and hope that you’ll find time to discover and enjoy it too. It was, in its time, a best-seller …

Fergus W. Hume
The mystery of a hansom cab
(The Australian Classics Library)
Sydney: Sydney University Press, 2010
(Orig. pub. 1886)
293pp.
ISBN: 9781920899561

(Review copy supplied by Sydney University Press)

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24 Comments leave one →
  1. January 29, 2012 2:44 am

    It sounds something I would enjoy, though outside my “normal” choices as well. I’m going to see if I can find it here. :-)

    • January 29, 2012 9:09 am

      Nice to hear from you Laura … And good luck in your search. I hope you find it. It’s very readable. Would love to hear what you think if you do track it down.

      • January 29, 2012 11:33 am

        Believe it or not, several used copies are available through Amazon marketplace. I think I will order one ($4.00 inc. shipping). Not bad. Thanks for the tip on that one…it’s going on the neverending TBR list.

        • January 29, 2012 6:04 pm

          $4.00 including shipping sounds good … better than the book I tried to order from Penguin India (I think it was them … it was their book anyhow) recently that was going to be $4.00 for the book and $17.00 for shipping and handling. I just couldn’t face it.

  2. January 29, 2012 3:03 am

    You know when people say they don’t read detective fiction, it’s sometimes that they haven’t found the ‘right’ detective fiction yet. There’s such a huge range. Do you like Wilkie Collins?

    • January 29, 2012 9:14 am

      Oh, Guy, I’m sure you’re right. I have read a smattering of crime fiction over the years and usually enjoy it. It’s partly a matter of not wanting my reading to get derailed by genre, particularly a genre that is characterized by a lot of series (though I know it’s not all like that), when there’s such variety out there. As for Wilkie Collins, he is my guilty gap. I’ve nearly read him a few times … I will try to do do before I go to my grave!

  3. Uk reader permalink
    January 29, 2012 11:00 am

    Hello – I am a reader from the UK and would be grateful if you have any idea of a book which I lost a couple of years ago, and am keen to remember the title of. It was published in Australia in 2005 at the latest, it was narrated by a child narrator (although an adult novel) in a large and dysfunctional family. The cover was striking – a photo trees and a river against a backdrop of a blue sky. It was definitely written by an Australian author. The family were all known by unusal, one-word names, and I think there was something about a social worker in it. Would be really grateful for any ideas re the title / author.

    • January 29, 2012 6:23 pm

      I’m sorry UK reader but I’ve been wracking my brains and can’t come up with it. Was it a long book? Can you think of anything else to help? Was it literary fiction? Historical fiction? A family saga? Was it a male or female author do you recollect?

      • January 30, 2012 7:08 pm

        Was it Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet? It had multiple narrators, and was about two families but they lived in the same house. Their last names were Lamb and Pickle. First names included Fish and Oriel.

        • Meg permalink
          February 3, 2012 7:17 am

          Sue, have you had any response as to if the book was Cloudstreet? This has been bugging me. I checked my books, and I like to read Australian fiction. Like you, I am not into crime, but enjoyed The Mystery of the Hansom Cab. It appealed to me because it was set in Melbourne and provided some history. It was a good read. I didn’t like Truth, I even read it twice to see if I could understand the hype.

          Meg

  4. January 29, 2012 4:39 pm

    You’ve got me all excited now. I first heard of this book on the Radio National Book Show – I think they had a series on Australian classics, and this one seemed right up my alley. I never used to read a lot of crime fiction, but last year I decided to explore the genre more and I am now convinced that it is thoroughly underrated. So this book had everything I was interested in at the time, Australian, a classic, crime fiction and it sounded really interesting. It was out of print (although I think its comin gout as one of the Text Pubishing books) but i found a beautiful second hand copy at a second bookstore in Fremantle WA. Sadly, it has sat on my shelf every since with the hundreds of other books waiting for me to read them. You’ve inspired me to pick it up soon!

    • January 29, 2012 6:11 pm

      Oh good Becky … I look forward to your review (when it gets to the top of the pile).

      Sydney University Press has it out now (for those interested) and it sounds like Text will be putting it out though I’m not sure whether all are coming out in May this year or that’s when they’ll start releasing them. Hume’s Cab was a best seller in its day and apparently did well in England and the US … It is I think one of those that gets an airing every now and then which results in its being more likely to be found second hand.

  5. January 29, 2012 8:54 pm

    First self-imposed barrier: detective fiction. Next self-imposed barrier to defeat: FANTASY.

    Also, I think you should get dad to do a guest post eventually! Not of this, of course, but something else you give to him :)

    • January 29, 2012 10:50 pm

      Perhaps you could work on him for that one … meanwhile, fantasy, you never know! I am rather a grounded in reality sort of person though.

  6. January 31, 2012 4:45 am

    This sounds like good fun, plus your entusiasm is infectious. Do you happen to know if it is available at Project Gutenberg of the top of your head? I can go look it up but I thought I’d ask in case you just knew :)

    • January 31, 2012 8:52 am

      Yes, Stefanie, it is certainly available at Project Gutenbeg Australia – and could be at Project Gutenberg too, but I’m not sure. It’s not too long and is a quick read really … Nicely paced.

  7. February 1, 2012 4:03 pm

    BBC Radio did a reading of this a few years ago, and I enjoyed listening online. Very entertaining.

    • February 1, 2012 8:25 pm

      Oh, did they? I think it made its first big sales in England really. Hume spent much of his life in England (and New Zealand). He’s not really Australian – born in England, spent his childhood/early adult years in New Zealand, worked as a barrister for a few years in Melbourne (where this book is based) and then went back to England.

  8. February 3, 2012 11:27 am

    No Meg, I haven’t. Would love to know … I wondered about some of the bestseller women like Di Morrissey and Judy Nunn but I don’t know their work and Cloudstreet does have the unusual names.

    I didn’t mind Truth, though I liked his The broken shore more, but none of these make me want to read lots of crime.

    • Meg permalink
      February 3, 2012 11:48 am

      Thanks Sue, I will keep racking my brains and searching. I hope the UK reader provides more information. I agree The Broken Shore was a better read than Truth. I am also not into crime or fantasy, but I will read science fiction short stories.

      • February 3, 2012 8:11 pm

        Oh yes, I agree, Meg, I’m even less into fantasy though I have read and enjoyed the odd science fiction (or, speculative fiction as Margaret Atwood likes to call it.)

  9. February 5, 2012 4:11 am

    This does sound like a very stylish book, and I think I would love the ‘boom time’ Melbourne and Doré references. Plus a best seller! Well I hope Fergus earned some cash!

    I’m also curious as to whether you break down your fantasy barrier. I’ve never read any either, although I did read some great lesbian detective books when pregnant!

    • February 5, 2012 7:26 pm

      I’ll tell you when I do Catherine! I did read The lion, the witch and the wardrobe when I was in library school and liked it. And I liked The hobbit which I read in my mid-20s. I know there’s good writing out there but I’m just not drawn to it, and it’s not as thought we are scrabbling round for things to read are we?

      Lesbian detective novels? Whose – or were they not well-known writers?

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