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March is the time to celebrate Southern Cross Crime Month hosted by Kim from Reading Matters. It is the time to read and celebrate crime fiction from Australia and New Zealand. I decided to read ‘The Mystery of a Hansom Cab’ by Fergus Hume as part of the celebrations. I discovered this book through Kim’s post.

In the picture – the poster of the 2012 Australian film adaptation of the book

A man comes out of a bar in the middle of the night. He is drunk. Another man accompanying him hails a hansom cab and asks the can driver to drop him home and leaves. While the cab driver is trying to get the drunk man into the cab, the companion turns up again and says he will also accompany his friend. But halfway to the destination, he gets out and leaves. When the cab reaches the rough destination, the cab driver tries to wake up the drunk man, but discovers that he is dead. He doesn’t have any identity papers, his address is not known, the identity of his erstwhile companion is not known and everything is a mystery. Who is this man? Why was he killed? Who was his companion who probably killed him? You have to read the story to find out.

The Mystery of a Hansom Cab‘ was published in 1886 and it was one of the first crime mysteries to be published by an Australian writer.  (Wikipedia says that he is an English writer. I think we can just ignore that. The author himself says in the preface to the book – “I may state in conclusion, that I belong to New Zealand, and not to Australia…”) When it first came out, it outsold Arthur Conan Doyle’s first Sherlock Holmes novel ‘A Study in Scarlet‘. There is a reason for that. It is because it is good, it is really good. After the initial shocking murder, the action moves at a rapid pace (rapid by 19th century standards), and the detective uses logical reasoning and clues to find the answers. When we are one-third into the book, we are convinced about the identity of the murderer, but that is too easy, and things are not what they seem. There are many false clues, some true ones, and the mystery is unfurled slowly and we discover the real truth only in the end. I loved the way the detective uses logical reasoning to find out who the suspect is. It is not some out-of-the-world thing which requires esoteric knowledge, but simple everyday logic, which most of us won’t use, but which looks simple in retrospect.

One of the things I loved in the book was Fergus Hume’s rich descriptions – he sometimes delves into mythology, into literature, into poetry, into philosophy, into history. It is such a pleasure to read. This was one of my favourite descriptions from the book.

“Mr. Gorby was shaving, and, as was his usual custom, conversed with his reflection. Being a detective, and of an extremely reticent disposition, he never talked outside about his business, or made a confidant of anyone. When he did want to unbosom himself, he retired to his bedroom and talked to his reflection in the mirror. This method of procedure he found to work capitally, for it relieved his sometimes overburdened mind with absolute security to himself. Did not the barber of Midas when he found out what was under the royal crown of his master, fret and chafe over his secret, until one morning he stole to the reeds by the river, and whispered, “Midas, has ass’s ears?” In the like manner Mr. Gorby felt a longing at times to give speech to his innermost secrets; and having no fancy for chattering to the air, he made his mirror his confidant. So far it had never betrayed him…”

This one is another favourite.

“The last thing before dropping off to sleep is the thought of trouble, and with the first faint light of dawn, it returns and hammers all day at the weary brain. But while a man can sleep, life is rendered at least endurable; and of all the blessings which Providence has bestowed, there is none so precious as that same sleep, which, as wise Sancho Panza says, “Wraps every man like a cloak.””

Hume’s style is definitely not spare, like in today’s crime novels. It is the opposite of spare. I miss this kind of writing in crime fiction. I think one of the last writers to write like this was Alistair MacLean.

Another thing that I loved about the book is the way Hume evokes the atmosphere of Melbourne of his time. We feel that we are there, we can breathe the Melbourne air, we can experience the hot weather of December. For example, this passage –

“If there is one thing which the Melbourne folk love more than another, it is music. Their fondness for it is only equalled by their admiration for horse-racing. Any street band which plays at all decently, may be sure of a good audience, and a substantial remuneration for their performance. Some writer has described Melbourne, as Glasgow with the sky of Alexandria; and certainly the beautiful climate of Australia, so Italian in its brightness, must have a great effect on the nature of such an adaptable people…”

We can observe the contrast between the elegant and sophisticated Melbournians and the poor Melbournians who live in the less flashy parts of the city. (One of them is Mother Guttersnipe (aka Mrs.Rawlings). Mother Guttersnipe is fearless, doesn’t care a damn about anyone, swears in every sentence she speaks. She is cool, almost Dickensian, and is one of my favourite characters from the story.) The city of Melbourne is almost a character in the book.

Fergus Hume says this interesting thing in his preface –

“Having completed the book, I tried to get it published, but every one to whom I offered it refused even to look at the manuscript on the ground that no Colonial could write anything worth reading. They gave no reason for this extraordinary opinion, but it was sufficient for them, and they laughed to scorn the idea that any good could come out of Nazareth—i.e., the Colonies. The story thus being boycotted on all hands, I determined to publish it myself, and accordingly an edition of, I think, some five thousand copies was brought out at my own cost. Contrary to the expectations of the publishers, and I must add to my own, the whole edition went off in three weeks, and the public demanded a second. This also sold rapidly, and after some months, proposals were made to me that the book should be brought out in London. Later on I parted with the book to several speculators, who formed themselves into what they called “The Hansom Cab Publishing Company.” Taking the book to London, they published it there with great success, and it had a phenomenal sale, which brought in a large sum of money…I may here state that I had nothing to do with the Company, nor did I receive any money for the English sale of the book beyond what I sold it for…”

It made me smile. It made me sad. Nothing much has changed. Publishers sucked then, in the 19th century. They suck now.

I enjoyed reading ‘The Mystery of a Hansom Cab‘. The mystery was interesting, but what I liked more was the story, the characters, the evocation of Melbourne, the descriptions, the prose. This is my first ever Australian crime fiction book, I think, and I am glad I read it.

Have you read ‘The Mystery of a Hansom Cab‘? What do you think about it? Are you participating in ‘Southern Cross Crime Month‘?

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