‘The Mystery of a Hansom Cab’ by Fergus Hume


1886. Re-released by Text in 2012;  e-book

I decided to read this in preparation for reading another book: Lucy Sussex’s Blockbuster which is next on the reading pile.  I’d seen the recent television adaption but, as is often the case when I watch crime shows on television, I am left with only fleeting impressions and no memory of detail at all.

This book very much lies within the 19-20th century detective novel genre, but what is significant here is that it predates Sherlock Holmes by a year and marks the cross-over from popular 19th century sensation fiction into what we now know as detective fiction.  Moreover, it was the first internationally-acclaimed novel set in Melbourne- a feat that has not really been replicated (I’m not sure that Kerry Greenwood’s Phrynne Fisher or Peter Temple or Shane Maloney’s novels have international standing?  I could, however, be wrong).  This is Marvellous Melbourne in all her 1880s glory here, before the 1890s depression blew its cold draught into her streets and houses.  As a Melbourne reader with more than a little affection for the town, I enjoyed reading about the Little Bourke Street slums, the somnolent stuffiness of the men-only Melbourne Club, the genteel Powlett Street surroundings of East Melbourne.

The story is typical nineteenth century detective fiction fare: mistaken identities, shameful disgrace, illegitimacy, reputation etc. with the requisite fragrant young lady love-interest, the decent but wronged young man, and the Dickensian hag who holds secrets.  I must admit that, as a historian, I found the descriptions of the slums and the cockney accents of the working-class characters the least authentic part of the book.  I know that buildings were densely packed into the lanes surrounding Collins and Bourke streets, but I felt that the descriptions and dialects owed too much to Charles Dickens’ foggy London.

[Actually, this has raised quite a question for me about the depiction and reality of working-class life in early urban Australia i.e. 1840s and 1860s. I sense that it should be different from England, given hot weather, dust and the relatively small size of towns surrounded by huge expanses of countryside even in Sydney and Melbourne.  I must look more carefully for it. Martin Sullivan looked at it in Men and Women of Port Phillip (my review here) but from memory, it was more an economic and political appraisal rather than an experiential one.]

The book commences with the quite modern touch of a newspaper report and at times combines notional non-fiction elements alongside the standard plot-driven narrative novel. The story moves along at a cracking pace, with a surprise or dangling thread at the end of most chapters.  There’s a chuckling, rather condescending omniscient humour that pervades the book, with its observations about Fate and human nature.  I enjoyed his observations of people- most especially the desiccated, crackling landlady Mrs Sampson. It’s all brought together with the written death-bed confession and everyone lives happily ever after with the truly deserving maintaining their respectability.  It is a nineteenth-century novel after all.

Sue at Whispering Gums also reviewed the book, which has been re-released recently.

11 responses to “‘The Mystery of a Hansom Cab’ by Fergus Hume

  1. It’s 3 or 4 years since I read this – listened rather, as it was an audio book from my local library – but I remember enjoying it. I think it might be fair to say that literary (and film) people often had difficulty distinguishing between working class Australian and Cockney accents.
    When I was young there was only one ‘famous’ Melbourne novel – On the Beach, though Fortunes of Richard Mahoney probably qualifies and before WWI Tasma’s Uncle Piper was probably the best known in Australia and England.

    • I’ve never heard of Uncle Piper but I absolutely loved The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney. I remember as a teenager a friend complaining about it as the most boring book she had ever read, but coming to it as an adult, I loved it.

      • Full name: Uncle Piper of Piper’s Hill, by Tasma (Jessie Couvreur) published in 1889 and one of the most popular books of the time. I think it was one of the early Australian women’s fiction titles republished by Dale Spender in the 1980s. Anyway I see now it is available on Project Gutenberg.

  2. hanks for the link RJ.Thanks for the link RJ. I enjoyed this, partly because of its place in Australia’s literary canon. My Sydney University Press edition was their re-release of Aussie classics. And Bill, I have a Tasma on my TBR. I’m determined to finally read it this year.

  3. I think that was a good plan to read Fergus Hume before reading Lucy Sussex. I wish I had, but I was far too impatient to get to Blockbuster! It is many years since I read the Mystery of the Hansom Cab, and my remaining impression is of detectives bursting into rooms and not discovering anything, but despite not having read Hume recently, I enjoyed Blockbuster! greatly, my favorite book of 2015. It is a gripping yarn and keeps you interested right to the end.

  4. I enjoyed the book when I read it a few years ago. The television adaptation was disappointing.

  5. artandarchitecturemainly

    I too saw the tv series and enjoyed it all. But until I read Country Life magazine (July 2012), it did not occur to me that we were talking about York-born Joseph Aloysius Hansom. Hansom was the architect whose name went down in history more for his taxis than for his splendid architecture. In December 1834 Hansom registered the design of a Patent Safety Cab, soon called the Hansom Cab.

    thanks for the link

  6. I must read this before Lucy Sussex’s Blockbuster (which sounds great). I think while at school and uni I had the opportunity to read this but didn’t which is a shame.

    • residentjudge

      Actually, Blockbuster stands quite well on its own. Having said that, though, I’m glad that I read The Mystery beforehand.

  7. Pingback: ‘Blockbuster: Fergus Hume and the Mystery of a Hansom Cab’ by Lucy Sussex | The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

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