Thursday, January 28, 2010

A long-forgotten Kiwi crime writer?

Who penned the bestselling detective story of the 1800s? Go on, guess... Sir Arthur Conan Doyle? Wilkie Collins? Edgar Allan Poe?

Like you, I would have surmised that one of the above trio, who played such a big part in the development of mystery writing prior to the 'Golden Age of Detective Fiction' helmed by the four Queens of Crime (Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy Sayers, Margery Allingham), would surely have taken that honour.

Instead it was a somewhat forgotten 'colonial' from the antipodes, Fergus Hume, whose debut novel THE MYSTERY OF A HANSOM CAB sold more copies that any other mystery book in the 19th century. An overnight sensation when Hume originally self-published it in Melbourne (where the murder mystery is set) in 1886, more than 375,000 copies were quickly sold when it was published in London the following year. A huge international success, it was translated into 11 languages, and sold more than 750,000 copies - a truly startling amount back then. Such was its success that Conan Doyle is reported to have remarked (somewhat bitterly) on its sales - even questioning its quality before then clearly 'borrowing' from it in a number of ways for his own Sherlock Holmes-introducing A STUDY IN SCARLET, released soon after.

I stumbled upon THE MYSTERY OF A HANSOM CAB during my semi-regular browsings of websites and online second-hand booksellers (part of an ongoing informal project to build up my collection of out-of-print and hard-to-find Kiwi crime fiction, as well as my knowledge of the history of New Zealand crime and thriller writing). I can't recall ever hearing of Hume (who ended up writing more than 100 stories), or his groundbreaking debut novel.

Hume was born in England in 1859, but spent almost all of his first 25 years in New Zealand. His family moved to Dunedin (current home of several Kiwi crime writers, such as Vanda Symon, Paddy Richardson, Carol Dawber, and recent immigrant Liam McIlvanney) when he was an infant, and he did all his schooling in Otago - including attending Otago Boys High School and studying law at the University of Otago. Hume was even admitted to the bar in New Zealand, before he travelled to Melbourne (Australia) - where he would live for three years before heading to the United Kingdom.

It was while he was living in Melbourne, working as a barrister's clerk and trying unsuccessfully to break into playwrighting, that Hume penned THE MYSTERY OF A HANSOM CAB. As he is recorded as saying: "I enquired of a leading Melbourne bookseller what style of book he sold most of. He replied that the detective stories of Gaboriau had a large sale; and as, at this time, I had never even heard of this author, I bought all his works — eleven or thereabouts — and read them carefully. The style of these stories attracted me, and I determined to write a book of the same class; containing a mystery, a murder, and a description of low life in Melbourne."

And so it was that within a year after leaving New Zealand, Hume wrote then self-published his debut novel. As he is recorded as saying, Having completed the book, I tried to get it published, but everyone to whom I offered it refused to even look at the manuscript on the ground that no colonial could write anything worth reading".

Even if publishers wouldn't look at it, the readers certainly did. Hume sold 5,000 copies of his self-published book within three weeks in October 1886, and more than 20,000 copies by the end of the year. Even bigger success followed once the book was published in England, and other overseas locations (although Hume wasn't really financially rewarded for this, as he'd sold the US and UK rights for a mere 50 pounds, never believing the book would become such a massive success). Howver he did make some further money following printings of a later revised edition, and by retaining the dramatic rights, which he soon profited from by the long Australian and London theatre runs of the story.

Hume's story captures Melbourne in its gold rush glory days. When a passenger is murdered in a hansom cab, the murderer, the victim, and the motive are all unknown. The cast includes wealthy squatters with murky pasts, a noble love-struck couple, and a slum princess with a secret identity. Modern-day Australian books commentators have called it a "classic formative text, the next chapter in a young country's sense of itself, and it's also a fabulous swipe at respectability."

The book begins with the following paragraph:

'Truth is said to be stranger than fiction, and certainly the extraordinary murder which took place in Melbourne on Thursday night, or rather Friday morning, goes a long way towards verifying this saying. A crime has been committed by an unknown assassin, within a short distance of the principal streets of this great city, and is surrounded by an impenetrable mystery. Indeed, from the nature of the crime itself, the place where it was committed, and the fact that the assassin has escaped without leaving a trace behind him, it would seem as though the case itself had been taken bodily out of one of Gaboriau's novels, and that his famous detective Lecoq only would be able to unravel it.

The facts of the case are simply these:-
'On the twenty-seventh of July, at the hour of twenty minutes to two o'clock in the morning, a hansom cab drove up to the police station, in Grey Street, St Kilda, and the driver made the startling statement that his cab contained the body of a man whom he had the reason to believe had been murdered.'

As it is no longer under copyright, you can actually access full online copies of THE MYSTERY OF A HANSOM CAB, as well as some of Hume's other mystery stories, courtesy of Project Gutenberg and other such websites. I like having my own hard copy, but those wanting to have a read online can do so here. You can also download an e-book of one of Hume's other tales, THE GREEN MUMMY, here.

Although he was born, and died, in England, and wrote his first novel while he was briefly in Australia, Hume did spend all of his formative years in New Zealand. So in a way, I guess we all share him (his debut is considered a key part of Australian literary history, for instance). In the man's own words, penned when he was launching a revised edition of THE MYSTERY OF A HANSOM CAB several years after he had returned to live in England (particularly Essex), "I may state in conclusion, that I belong to New Zealand, and not to Australia, that I am a barrister, and not a retired policeman." So I guess I should feel comfortable including him amongst the stable of "Kiwi" crime and thriller writers. Perhaps, as the very first.

Have you heard of Fergus Hume? Have you read THE MYSTERY OF A HANSOM CAB, or any of his other tales? What do you think? Do you like delving into the past and finding long-forgotten crime writers, or do you prefer to stick solely with current writers? Thoughts and comments most welcome?


  1. Most crime fans in the UK have heard of "Mystery of a Hansom Cab" - which famously out-sold "A Study in Scarlet" by a huge margin when both were published in the same year - but few have actually read it. I have to admit that I hadn't until about four years ago when I started teaching Creative Crime Writing and Appreciation classes. And what a gem it is! Not only one of the earliest international betsellers (it went on to do very well in the US)among crime novels, but it ranges from police procedural to suspense thriller to courtroom drama, well ahead of its time.

  2. The Australian Broadcasting Co.'s Book Show broadcast a program on "Hansom Cab":

    And _Clues: A Journal of Detection_ 26.1 (2008) published "The Real Sensation of 1887: Fergus Hume and _The Mystery of a Hansom Cab_" by Christopher Pittard: