The Mystery of a Hansom Cab by Fergus Hume

May 22, 2017 at 11:21 am (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

I had already heard of The Mystery of a Hansom Cab when I chanced upon a short story written by that novel’s author, Fergus Hume. The story, entitled, “The Ghost’s Touch,” is the lead piece in Crimson Snow, an anthology in the British Library Crime Classics series. Editor Martin Edwards says of it:

This highly traditional mystery is a period piece, yes, but also offers a reminder that Hume was a capable storyteller; he deserves more than to be remembered solely on the strength of a single book.

I liked “The Ghost’s Touch” so much that I decided to dive right into the ‘single book’ upon which Fergus Hume’s somewhat elusive fame rests:

I would call this novel a locked room mystery, except for the fact that the murder happened in the middle of  the night, in the open air. In order to fully comprehend what took place, it’s necessary to know just what a hansom cab is. The Wikipedia entry offers a succinct description of  the vehicle’s design (and  features some excellent visuals as well):

The cab, a type of fly, sat two passengers (three if squeezed in) and a driver who sat on a sprung seat behind the vehicle. The passengers could give their instructions to the driver through a trap door near the rear of the roof. They could pay the driver through this hatch and he would then operate a lever to release the doors so they could alight. In some cabs, the driver could operate a device that balanced the cab and reduced strain on the horse. The passengers were protected from the elements by the cab, and by folding wooden doors that enclosed their feet and legs, protecting their clothes from splashing mud. Later versions also had an up-and-over glass window above the doors to complete the enclosure of the passengers. Additionally, a curved fender mounted forward of the doors protected passengers from the stones thrown up by the flying hooves of the horse.

It’s easy to see that at night, a criminal act could take place within the close confines of the carriage, without being observed by the driver, or by anyone else for that matter. And that is exactly what happens right at the outset of The Mystery of a Hansom Cab. The deceased was found to have no identification on him; thus, the police  are left with two perplexing questions: What is the identity of the victim? Who killed him?

Hume gradually fills in the picture with the relevant dramatis personae: among them are Brian Fitzgerald, a young man about town who knew the victim; Madge Frettlby, Brian’s fiancee, a woman of uncommon grit and determination; Madge’s father Mark Frettlby, and Mr. Gorby, the police inspector. (There are many more supporting characters.) Gorby goes after Brian Fitzgerald like Javert pursuing Jean Valjean. He’s the very avatar of the investigator who, the more wrongheaded his theory of the crime, the more relentlessly he pursues its fanciful dictates.

While this conundrum is being set forth, the city of Melbourne, Australia comes vividly to life. I freely admit that the only things I know about this locale have been gleaned from watching the Miss Fisher Murder Mysteries. Whereas these delightful productions are set in the 1920s, Fergus Hume’s novel was published several decades earlier. So the setting reaches further back in time, becoming even more exotic and intriguing in the process. Here, Hume describes one Melbourne’s more elegant venues:

It was Saturday morning, and of course all fashionable Melbourne was doing the Block. With regard to its ‘Block,’ Collins Street corresponds to New York’s Broadway, London’s Regent Street sand Rotten Row, and to the Boulevards of Paris. It is on the Block that people show off their new dresses, bow to their friends, cut their enemies, and chatter small talk.

When we venture away from Collins Street toward Burke Street, though, we encounter an altogether different, far less salubrious scene:

The restless crowd which jostles and pushes along the pavements is grimy in the main, but the grimyness is lightened in many places by the presence of the ladies of the demi-monde,who flaunt about in gorgeous robes of the  brightest colours. These gay-plumaged birds of ill omen collect at the corners of the street, and converse loudly with their male acquaintances, till desired by some white-helmeted policeman to move on, which they do, after a good deal of unnecessary chatter.

In other words, Melbourne in the 1880s resembles in some ways London of the same period.

Hume’s writing is sprightly and inventive and filled with literary allusions, from the classics of the ancient world to contemporaneous crime literature – and that includes both detective fiction and true crime. I was pleased to see Thomas De Quincey referenced more than once; likewise Mary Elizabeth Braddon, whose Lady Audley’s Secret was so fearfully entertaining, not to mention compulsively readable.

Hume knows how to render characters vividly. Here’s his description of Brian’s landlady Mrs.Sampson:

She was a small, dried-up little woman with a wrinkled yellow face, and looked so parched and brittle that strangers could not help thinking it would do her good if she were soaked in water for a year, in order to soften her a little. Whenever she moved she crackled, and one was in constant dread of seeing one of her wizen-looking limbs break off short, like the branch of a dead tree.

There’s more, but doubtless you get the idea.

Fergus Hume and Arthur Conan Doyle were both born in 1859. The Mystery of a Hansom Cab came out in 1886; A Study in Scarlet, the work that first introduced the world to Sherlock Holmes, appeared in Beeton’s Christmas Annual in 1887.   Scarlet barely created a ripple of interest in the reading public, whereas Hansom Cab created a sensation, first in Australia and then in Britain. The Sign of the Four, Conan Doyle’s second novel featuring Sherlock Holmes, came out in 1890. Like Scarlet, it did not make much of an impression on the reading public, although this delightful story of how it came to be written is recounted in the Wikipedia entry:

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle described how he was commissioned to write the story over a dinner with Joseph M. Stoddart, managing editor of an American publication Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, at the Langham Hotel in London on 30 August 1889. Stoddart wanted to produce an English version of Lippincott’s with a British editor and British contributors. The dinner was also attended by Oscar Wilde, who eventually contributed The Picture of Dorian Gray to the July 1890 issue. Doyle discussed what he called this “golden evening” in his 1924 autobiography Memories and Adventures.

(Oh, to have  been a fly on the wall at that dinner party!)

“A Scandal in Bohemia,” the first short story featuring Holmes, appeared in The Strand Magazine in 1891. This was the work that kick started the mania for Conan Doyle’s brilliant eccentric creation. That fascination is with us still; if anything, it has grown in stature and intensity, spawning innumerable spin-offs and being handily adapted to modern media .  

Fergus Hume’s literary fortunes followed an opposite course. After Hansom Cab, he penned numerous novels and short stories, but none grabbed readers as his first novel had done, so widely and so unexpectedly.

If I have a criticism of The Mystery of  Hansom Cab, it’s that it is rather longer than necessary. The pace flags somewhat toward the end, and the plot becomes unnecessarily tangled. But for the most part it was a terrific read, filled with colorful characters and featuring a compelling love story.. I highly recommend  it.

Fergus Hume 1859-1932

3 Comments

  1. Xavier Lechard said,

    Hello Roberta,

    Your reviews are always perceptive and well-written, and this one is no exception – though I may be a little biased in this particular case as I happen to agree with you. 🙂

    Aussie historian Lucy Sussex wrote a terrific book aptly named “Blockbuster”, on Hansom Cab and its contemporary reception. You may like to read it to learn more about Hume and the context in which he wrote his magnum opus.

    It’s a minority opinion but I think when comparing A Study in Scarlet and Hansom Cab in terms of structure and plotting, Hume’s book comes across as the most modern of the two. Doyle never quite understood the importance of the whodunit element and except for The Hound of the Baskervilles always stuck in his novels to long flashbacks inherited from Gaboriau that stopped the action and sometimes dragged a bit*. Hume, on the other hand, wrote a genuine whodunit complete with the dramatic revelation in the end. The courtroom scenes also are very ahead of their time I think. It’s a pity Hume wasn’t more influential; the modern crime novel might have appeared earlier if he had been.

    * If you allow me some BSP:

    http://atthevillarose.blogspot.fr/2011/07/revolutionary-archaism-of-conan-doyle.html

    http://atthevillarose.blogspot.fr/2012/06/revolutionary-archaism-of-conan-doyle.html

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Thanks so much for this illuminating commentary, Xavier. Among other things, it makes me realize that I have to go back to A Study in Scarlet. In fact, I’m not sure if I ever read it. If I did, it was a long time ago.
      As for Lucy Sussex’s wonderful book, I’m already part of the way through it. You’re right – it’s excellent.

  2. Martin Edwards said,

    I second Xavier’s comment, and I’m really glad you enjoyed this one, Roberta.

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