‘I’ll get the better of you, clever as you are – and you are clever,’ he went on in a tone of admiration, as he looked around the luxurious hansom, ‘to choose such a convenient place for a murder; no disturbance and plenty of time for escape after you had finished; it’s a pleasure going after a chap like you, instead of after men who tumble down like ripe fruit, and ain’t got any brains to keep their crime quiet.’
The Mystery of a Hansom Cab (1886) was something of a publishing phenomenon in its day. It sold 100,000 copies in its first two print runs in Australia, going on to sell half a million copies after its publication in the UK and America. In his preface to the edition on Gutenberg, Hume relates the origins of the book. He was an unsuccessful Melbourne dramatist who decided that writing a successful novel would further his career in the theatre. He asked a local bookseller what style of book sold well, and was advised to mimic the detective stories of Gaboriau.
I determined to write a story of the same class; containing a mystery, a murder, and a description of low life in Melbourne.
Failing to find a publisher, he printed 5,000 copies himself and was amazed when they sold in a week. An edition printed in London enjoyed amazing success, but brought him only £50 for the rights.
The story begins with a murder in a hansom cab in the Melbourne suburb of St Kilda. The killer ushers his drunken victim into the cab and gets out before it reaches its destination, at which point the driver finds his passenger is not merely sleeping off his drink.
The dead man is Oliver Whyte, a recent arrival from London, and one of two rivals for the hand of wealthy local beauty Madge Frettlby. Her other suitor, Brian Fitzgerald, ends up on trial for the murder, and the story relates the efforts of his friends to clear his name.
As a representative of its type, Hansom Cab is pretty good. There is the usual mix of (fairly slow-moving) suspense, melodrama, comedy and heroics. Hume had a strong grasp of the stock characters required in every Victorian novel. There’s a handsome but proud young man going to prison rather than reveal a lady’s secret, his devoted and determined girlfriend who refuses to believe in her guilt, a canny lawyer, two rival detectives (possibly inspiring the Big Bow Mystery), and not one, but two comic landladies (apparently based on people Hume knew very well). Mrs Hableton has a dim view of men:
I was sittin’ in this very room and heard their voices git angry, and they were a-swearin’ at one another, which is the way with men, the brutes.
Mrs Sampson is thin, rustles when she walks, and can’t stop talking about her relatives.
‘I ‘ope it ain’t bills, Mr Fitzgerald ‘avin’ money in the bank, and everythin’ respectable like a gentleman as ‘e is, tho’, to be sure, your bill might come down on him unbeknown, ‘e not ‘avin’ kept it in mind, which it ain’t everybody as ‘ave sich a good memory as my aunt on my mother’s side, she ‘avin’ been famous for ‘er dates like a ‘istory, not to speak of ‘er multiplication tables, and the numbers of people’s ‘ouses.’
Not so comic is the character of Mother Guttersnipe, a nasty old lady drinking herself to death in Little Bourke Street, who seems to hold a vital piece of evidence.
‘Shut up, cuss you!’ yelled Mother Guttersnipe viciously, ‘or I’ll knock yer bloomin’ ‘ead orf,’ and she seized the square bottle as if to carry out her threat; but, altering her mnind, she poured some of its contents into the cup, and drank it off with avidity.
The Victorian Australian setting adds interest to proceedings. Life in Victorian clothes sounds horribly uncomfortable in the Antipodean heat – and in the background are rumours of a Russian invasion. I had to look this up, and apparently there was a very real concern that this would happen in the 1850s, 60s and 70s – the ‘Russian fear’.
Overall a quite enjoyable book. It shouldn’t take the modern reader long to spot the killer (especially if you read the preface first – way to spoil your own story, Fergus) but it’s a good read.
The Mystery of a Hansom Cab
First published in Australia 1886
This edition 1898, Project Gutenberg
168 pages in print