Inside Story

Fergus Hume’s startling story

An overnight sensation when it was published in Melbourne in 1886, The Mystery of a Hansom Cab played a key role the development of crime fiction, writes Simon Caterson

Simon Caterson 8 May 2012 2622 words

The outsider: Fergus Hime (above) at around the time he was working on The Mystery of a Hansom Cab, his best-known novel. Elliott & Fry/State Library of Victoria

THE bestselling crime novel of the nineteenth century was not written by Arthur Conan Doyle or Wilkie Collins. That distinction belongs to Fergus Hume’s The Mystery of a Hansom Cab, which appeared in the year before Sherlock Holmes made what was, by comparison, a rather unspectacular debut in A Study in Scarlet.

The Hansom Cab was an overnight sensation when published in Melbourne in 1886, and it rapidly found readers around the world, especially in Britain. As many as 750,000 copies were sold during Hume’s lifetime, nearly half that number within the first six months of publication in London in 1887.

Advertised in its first English edition as “a startling and realistic story of Melbourne social life,” The Hansom Cab was a first novel which had been written almost by accident and was self-published. Despite these modest beginnings the book became a huge international success and was translated into eleven languages. In its obituary for Hume in 1932, the Times was to note that “everybody read it eagerly and in fact it went all over the world.”

Over the past hundred years Hume’s remarkable achievement has been outshone by the work of his contemporaries and, like other pioneering works, his novel has been eclipsed by subsequent developments in the genre. The Hansom Cab is nevertheless significant historically and, more importantly, it remains highly readable.

Fergusson Wright Hume was an outsider in the city he anatomised. He was born in England to Scottish parents in 1859 and taken in his infancy to New Zealand. He studied law at the University of Otago and was called to the New Zealand bar in 1885. Rather than go into legal practice, he emigrated to Melbourne and found work as a law clerk while attempting to further his theatrical ambitions.

By his own account, published as the preface to the revised 1896 edition of The Hansom Cab, Hume wanted to make his living writing plays but could find no theatre manager who would even look at his work. Hoping to make his name in another branch of writing, he asked a local bookseller “what style of book he sold most of.” The reply was the detective novels of the French writer Emile Gaboriau (1832–73) which feature Monsieur Lecoq, whose murky past, eccentric habits and genius for deduction make him a forerunner of Holmes and countless other fictional sleuths.

Hume set about buying up Gaboriau’s books, studied their method and became “determined to write a book of the same class; containing a mystery, a murder, and a description of low life in Melbourne.” His plotting, however, is much tighter than Gaboriau’s somewhat digressive narratives. Hume follows his exemplar mainly in his approach to realistic detail. Diligent in his research, Hume claimed to have “passed a great many nights” in the city’s slums, “gathering material.”

The setting for the murder was inspired by a late-night journey taken in a hansom cab, a horse-drawn two-wheeled cabriolet for two passengers with the driver mounted behind and the reins going over the roof. Hume realised that this vehicle was perfectly designed for murder, since the crime could be concealed from the driver, the only potential witness.

Despite his ingenuity Hume found that “every one to whom I offered it refused to even look at the manuscript on the ground that no Colonial could write anything worth reading.” Ever practical, he decided to publish the book himself and sold 5000 copies within three weeks in October 1886. By the end of the year a total of 20,000 copies had been printed in a city whose population was at the time less than half a million. Virtually every literate adult in Melbourne must have read the book.

Flushed with the provincial success he had hoped for, Hume decided to accept an offer to sell his copyright to a group of English investors who had formed themselves into The Hansom Cab Publishing Company in order to publish his novel in London. He was paid the paltry sum of £50. As he later explained: “The story was written only to attract local attention and no one was more astonished than I when it passed beyond the narrow circles for which it had originally been intended.”

Despite massive sales in Britain, The Hansom Cab Publishing Company went bankrupt in 1889. Rights in the novel eventually passed to the large London publisher Jarrolds, who persuaded Hume to revise the text, which meant cutting out some of the local detail and watering down language considered strong for the time.

Hume’s hero Brian Fitzgerald and heroine Madge Frettlby are by the end of The Hansom Cab keen to leave Melbourne, as was the author himself. After living in the city for barely two years, Hume sailed for Europe in 1888 and never returned. He settled in England and embarked on a prodigious writing career that produced over 130 further novels, as well as many stories and articles, before his death in 1932 at his home in the town of Thundersley, Essex.

None of these books approached the popularity and enduring appeal of his first novel and they are now all but forgotten. Hume wrote several novels with Australian settings and references but only two made any impression. The most substantial of these is Madame Midas, A Realistic and Sensational Story of Melbourne Mining Life (1888), set mainly in Melbourne and on the Ballarat goldfields. In some ways a more accomplished work than his first novel, it recounts a poisoning case which interests two of the characters who appear in The Hansom Cab, the lawyer Calton and the detective Kilsip. Hume’s other major Australian novel is the underrated Miss Mephistopheles (1890), whose milieu is Melbourne’s theatrical and literary circles and which features a diamond robbery and the murder of a pawnbroker.

THE Hansom Cab established itself as a classic of its kind. It was so famous that many claimed authorship and Hume was forced to assert the truth of his identity in the 1896 preface. In 1888 a parody by “W. Humer Ferguson” appeared, billed as a “blood-curdling romance” and entitled The Mystery of a Wheelbarrow, or Gaboriau Gaborooed, an Idealistic Story of a Great and Rising Colony. The identity of the parodist is unknown and the context of the humour largely lost, but, if nothing else, the book is a gauge of the success of Hume’s original.

Hume described himself as a “storyteller” rather than “novelist” in his Who’s Who entry. Although his writing career benefited from the book’s runaway success, he was also in a sense trapped by it. Hume never fulfilled his ambition to write plays, complaining that publishers would not hear of him writing anything but detective stories.

Oddly enough, an adaptation of The Hansom Cab was produced in theatres in Australia and London in the late 1880s. The London production, which Hume co-authored with Arthur Law, ran for five hundred nights. The story was filmed three times in the silent era and a radio version by Michael Hardwick was broadcast by the BBC in 1950 and 1960. In 1961 Barry Pree mounted a new stage adaptation in Melbourne.

The novel’s fame endured until well into this century. In 1954 the Sunday Times listed it as one of the hundred best crime novels of all time. Six years later Everyman’s Dictionary of Literary Biography declared that The Hansom Cab “ranks as the most successful detective story of all time.”

The Hansom Cab put Australia on the literary map. The novelist Miles Franklin, writing in 1956, commented that the novel was all many people overseas seemed to know about Australian literature. “This old vehicle has renown beyond these shores,” she wrote, “and it still serves visitors caught beyond these shores, who point their ignorance facetiously by confessing that it was the extent of their knowledge that an Australian literature existed till some hazard brought them hither.”

Though never long out of print, The Hansom Cab has been disregarded by critics, with the notable exception of Stephen Knight. There is no biography of Hume and commentators tend to see the novel as a statistical freak or bibliographical curiosity rather than as one of the pioneering works in its genre.

Of particular interest now is Hume’s vivid evocation of a thriving yet deeply divided Victorian metropolis. The kind of cross-sectional representation of urban reality applied to late 1980s New York by Tom Wolfe in The Bonfire of the Vanities was anticipated by Hume a century earlier in the Australian city which in its heyday was known as “Marvellous Melbourne.”

Like the New York of Wolfe’s “masters of the universe,” Melbourne in the 1880s was in the grip of an immense economic boom, fuelled by dubious financial speculation and soon to end in disaster. It was a laissez faire prosperity in which fortunes could be made and lost almost instantaneously and defalcation was rife. The Hansom Cab itself became a footnote to the shady dealings of the time when a banker named George Nicholson Taylor, later jailed for fraud, spread the story that his ill-gotten gains were partly the result of a share of profits made from backing its publication.

Hume’s extremes of rich and poor are represented by the Collins Street “block” and the slums of Little Bourke Street. The streets themselves are a stone’s throw from each other and Hume contrives a plot that brings their separate worlds into collision. This much is foreshadowed in the novel’s epigraph, published on the original title page: “As marine plants floating on the surface of waves appear distinct growths yet spring unseen from a common centre, so individuals apparently strangers to each other are indissolubly connected by many invisible bonds and sympathies which are known only to themselves.” In adopting this as his major theme, Hume, like Wilkie Collins and others, touches that very sensitive Victorian nerve in his readers: respectability. The discovery of the killer is a fairly straightforward process of elimination; the incidental revelations about identity and the fragility of social position that are thrown up by the investigation are the true sources of sensation.

This kind of sensitivity may have had particular resonance in a colonial society whose institutions were modelled closely on the European parent but lacked the same sense of rootedness. Hume’s sheep baron Mark Frettlby, pillar of the exclusive Melbourne Club, has acquired immense wealth in the New World while harbouring a secret which, if revealed, would bring instant social disgrace.

THE novel’s phenomenal success in Britain is perhaps explained by the fact that the English-speaking world was then more closely knit than might seem the case today. The Hansom Cab appeared in England at a time when wealthy squatters were much in the news and had been featured in the work of Dickens and Trollope. The best-known instance in literature of the myth of an antipodean transformation from rags to riches is, of course, Magwitch in Dickens’s Great Expectations.

The depiction of the horrors of urban poverty was the staple of “slum sketches” regularly printed in contemporary newspapers in both Australia and England and is still the stuff of innumerable current affairs stories. Hume’s realism has the journalistic attention to authentic detail found in Dickens and Balzac.

Characters such as the shrewish landladies and Mother Guttersnipe are drawn with memorable grotesquerie. Similarly, the satire involving Dora Featherweight and her piano tutor Signor Thumpanini is a straightforward poke at bourgeois pretension. Hume himself was an accomplished musician, which probably explains why he chose to grind this particular axe.

Where Hume shows signs of greater originality is in his use of documentary material. His first three chapters consist of a dossier. The sense that the reader has opened up a case file enhances the novel’s verisimilitude. The depiction of legal proceedings is similarly realistic and indeed sits somewhat incongruously with Hume’s more melodramatic domestic scenes. Madge Frettlby and Brian Fitzgerald are suitably idealised, she an heiress with a heart of gold and he the passionate Celtic heart-throb.

This is a novel that is conventionally Victorian and yet surprisingly ahead of its time. Like the hard-boiled crime writers of subsequent generations, Hume prefers the back lanes to the drawing-room and shows his detectives as flawed and prone to use unorthodox methods in pursuit of their quarry. There is even a touch of nascent multiculturalism in the book. Sal Rawlins, the unwitting agent of social subversion and saviour of the hero, is not ashamed to admit that she “tooked up with a Chinaman.” Later, she becomes part of the Frettlby household with remarkable ease.

Although he likens Melbourne more than once to London, Hume sees his city as already evolving its own character. He offers this rather laconic prediction for its future:

In spite of the dismal prognostications of Marcus Clarke regarding the future Australian, whom he describes as being “a tall, coarse, strong-jawed, greedy, pushing, talented man, excelling in swimming and horsemanship,” it is more likely that he will be a cultured, indolent individual, with an intense appreciation of the arts and sciences, and a dislike for hard work and utilitarian principles.

Hume’s implied scale of values is democratic as well as cosmopolitan. The detective who finally identifies the murderer is rewarded with an annuity that enables him to carry on private practice, a position he gains through merit rather than the kind of privilege bestowed on a Lord Peter Wimsey.

Over one hundred years later, Melbourne continues to be the place Hume knew. The city is still very conservative yet entrepreneurial. Yesteryear’s speculations are today’s “major projects.” The public buildings hastily erected in the boom years were never fully executed – Parliament House, the GPO and Flinders Street station – while newer additions such as the Crown Casino may never be finished.

The Hansom Cab has clearly worn well, though not all of its original readers would have predicted as much. For his part, the creator of Sherlock Holmes dismissed his rival’s work in a private letter as “one of the weakest tales I have read, simply sold by puffing,” but Conan Doyle also owes a considerable literary debt to Gaboriau and was not above using devices similar to those employed by Hume.

Some aspects of The Hansom Cab correspond directly with A Study in Scarlet, notably the rivalry between the detectives engaged officially in the investigation and the use of the hansom cab in the modus operandi of the killer. While there is no direct evidence of borrowing on the part of Doyle, these parallels do at the very least demonstrate that the two writers were separated by much less than the distance that lay between their respective cities.

Conan Doyle and Hume spearheaded different directions in crime fiction. Where Conan Doyle concentrates on establishing the character of his protagonist, Hume’s detectives Gorby and Kilsip are merely two players within an ensemble of actors in the drama. Hume uses the mystery to anatomise the society in which his characters move.

The Mystery of a Hansom Cab stands in contradiction of the notion that bestsellers burn bright and fade fast. A panoramic depiction of a bustling yet uneasy city, the novel has a central place in Australian literary history. It is also a key text in crime fiction’s formative years.