This review is my first for the “Back to the Classics 2014” challenge.
First a bit of background. Several years before the debut of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, Fergus Hume emigrated to Melbourne, Australia, from New Zealand. He was a law clerk with aspirations of becoming a playwright, but he could find no theatres prepared to premiere his work. Determined to become a writer, he asked a local bookseller what was the current bestselling genre, and was told that crime novels by French author Emile Gaboriau were selling particularly well. Hume purchased several of these and studied their style, before writing his own novel, The Mystery of a Hansom Cab. Unable to find a publisher, Hume had the novel printed himself and became almost an overnight success, with 5,000 copies sold in October 1886, and 20,000 by the end of that year. He sold the publishing rights to a group of London investors, who soon went bust, and the London publishing firm who succeeded them insisted on several alterations. Fortunately I was able to find a recent edition which claims to have reproduced the original text.
The story is fairly straightforward. In the early hours of a Friday morning, two men get into a hansom cab, one claiming he wishes to see the other (who is very drunk) safely home. A few blocks later, the sober man gets out of the cab, telling the driver the passenger is much better and will give him directions when they arrive in St Kilda. Later, the driver is unable to rouse the passenger and finding him dead, drives to the nearest police station. What follows is a scandal which embroils members of both the highest and lowest echelons of Melbourne society. Who is the dead man? Why does no-one come forward to identify him? Who would want him dead? Why?
This is not a typical whodunnit, and does not follow the standard formula so well-known to fans of Conan Doyle or Agatha Christie. The detectives in charge of investigating the case appear only sporadically, and instead Hume focuses on the private lives of the subjects of the previously mentioned scandal. At times the mystery is almost forgotten in favour of exploring the romance between two of the high-society characters. Unsurprisingly (given his background), one of Hume’s lead characters is a lawyer, but although he expends the most energy on attempting to solve the case, his proposed solution is not the correct one.
What I did enjoy was the depictions of Melbourne society, and the particular attention paid to the geography of the case. I lived in Melbourne for several years when I was a student, so I did get a certain thrill in recognising several landmarks, and being able to visualise many of the settings (which have barely changed in 150 years). I was also struck by the many literary references sprinkled throughout the pages, although I must admit that with the exception of Shakespeare, I recognised very few of them.
Would I recommend it to others? Hard to say… If you enjoy classics, mysteries, or classic mysteries give it a go, but it probably won’t appeal to those whose tastes lean towards the more modern.