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.
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)
(Review copy supplied by Sydney University Press)