Book review: The Mystery of a Hansom Cab

The Mystery of a Hansom CabThe Mystery of a Hansom Cab by Fergus Hume
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Fergus Hume wrote something close to 130 novels in his life, but it seems none had the impact of this one, which sold 100,000 copies in its initial two print runs, then went on to sell more than a million copies internationally.

The fact he was ripped off on the international sales (fifty quid for the rights? And no other cash? Why not?) possibly explains the other 129 novels. But chicanery aside, it’s worth noting how popular the book was on release. Arthur Conan Doyle pooh-poohed it but he probably would, given that it outsold the first Holmes novel. That’s how big this thing was – a veritable blockbuster, and one noted for its importance in illustrating the transition from the sensation novel to crime fiction. Dan Brown can’t claim that.

Hume’s background in law informs the mystery, and the courtroom drama is realistic, despite a couple of egad! moments. Cop lingo seems pretty legitimate, and there’s a sort of Dickensian portraiture at work as far as descriptions of Melbourne’s street life goes. There’s an inheritance mystery and the usual familial dramas associated with same, as well as a couple of gothic touches. It’s not hugely unpredictable, but it is a lot snappier than I would have credited before reading.

Pretty much the only thing which dates the text is the amount of religious, mythological and classical reference contained within. There’s hardly a chapter let go by without some claim to the storehouse of Educated Persons’ Knowledge. It’s not hugely offputting, but those moments do slow the pace of the work a little.

The Text Classics edition of the book is a reset (albeit one with a few spelling corrections) of the initial 1886 Melbourne printing. Later and foreign editions were butchered to remove some of the coarser material – which I can only assume refers to Mother Guttersnipe’s love o’grog and the word blarst – so it’s good to know the work is in its complete form, as intended. As with most Text Classics, there’s the sense that publication of this edition is a labour of love – and I’m glad there’s a publishing house making the effort to revive our literary history, however dated or quaint it may seem today.

The Mystery of a Hansom Cab is an airport novel, transported from the 1880s to now. It’s not a Grisham but it’ll serve just as well on your next layover.

(If you enjoyed the book, it’s worth seeking out the ABC TV production. Made in 2012, it’s vaguely terrible and features performances largely conducted via sideburns. Still, it’s a bit of a period laugh if you’re familiar with the original. There’s a trailer here. It’s not the only adaptation of the work, but it is most likely the cheesiest.)

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