Monday, June 11, 2012

{review} the mystery of a hansom cab

Fergus Hume The Mystery of a Hansom Cab (1886) 

On the twenty-seventh day of July, at the hour of twenty minutes to two o'clock in the morning, a hansom cab drove up to the police station in Grey Street, St. Kilda, and the driver made the startling statement that his cab contained the body of a man who he had reason to believe had been murdered.
Fergus Hume has the distinction of writing the first Australian crime novel. It was HUGE - a phenomenon in its time (to borrow from John Sutherland: the "most sensationally popular crime and detective novel of the century" [dodgy source]). However, poor Hume had sold the rights and made sod all from its subsequent wild success. 

Hansom Cab is the story of the investigation into a mysterious murder in, yes, a hansom cab. It is set in Melbourne and, for those who know Melbourne ("Glasgow with the sky of Alexandria"), it is quite a good game to try to figure out how little has changed in that streetscape since Victorian times.
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 race as the Anglo-Saxon. In spite of the dismal prognostications of Marcus Clarke regarding the future Australian, whom he describes as being "a tall, coarse, strong-jawed, greedy, pushing, talented man, excelling in swimming and horsemanship," it is more likely that he will be a cultured, indolent individual, with an intense appreciation of the arts and sciences, and a dislike to hard work and utilitarian principles.
The story is a fairly typical one: a murder, a corpse without identification, a handful of potential suspects, a lovable dialect-speaking landlady, a determined detective or two, a crime with its roots in the past, and a spot of tender romance.
"You do not regret?" he said, bending his head. "Regret, no," she answered, looking at him with loving eyes. "With you by my side, I fear nothing. Surely our hearts have been tried in the furnace of affliction, and our love has been chastened and purified."
It is quite a good read and a decent shot at sensational fiction. It is hard to imagine how astonishingly original it must have been in its day, since it fits so neatly the stereotypes of the typical crime novel… stereotypes it created. There is apparently a parody of it out there somewhere; it is hard to see how it could beat the original. Its modern day appeal may well now be primarily to Australians as a sort of period piece on Melbourne society, rather than as a crime novel. 

My interest in Hume lies in another area, namely his reuse of ancient themes in other novels that never hit the big-time like Hansom Cab. It is noticeable how often the ancient world pops its head into this book, which is filled with references to popular myth - the sphinx, Midas, asses' ears and so on: "I don't like Latin," said Miss Frettlby, shaking her pretty head. 'I agree with Heine's remark, that if the Romans had been forced to learn it they would not have found time to conquer the world.'" The narrator also suggests that Australians would be cooler if they adopted Greek dress!
It was a broiling hot day--one of those cloudless days, with the blazing sun beating down on the arid streets, and casting deep, black shadows--a real Australian December day dropped by mistake of the clerk of the weather into the middle of August. The previous week having been really chilly, it was all the more welcome. It was Saturday morning, and fashionable Melbourne was "doing the Block." Collins Street is to the Southern city what Bond Street and the Row are to London, and the Boulevards to Paris. It is on the Block that people show off their new dresses, bow to their friends, cut their enemies, and chatter small talk. The same thing no doubt occurred in the Appian Way, the fashionable street of Imperial Rome, when Catullus talked gay nonsense to Lesbia, and Horace received the congratulations of his friends over his new volume of society verses. History repeats itself, and every city is bound by all the laws of civilisation to have one special street, wherein the votaries of fashion can congregate.
This sort of thing may well irritate the hell out of many readers. The book is also frequently interestingly intertextual, which probably should not surprise given that Hume set out in cold-blood to write a popular crime novel based on his reading of other instances of the genre: "Puts one in mind of 'The Leavenworth Case,' and all that sort of thing," said Felix, whose reading was of the lightest description. "Awfully exciting, like putting a Chinese puzzle together. Gad, I wouldn't mind being a detective myself."
"Murdered in a cab," he said, lighting a fresh cigarette, and blowing a cloud of smoke. "A romance in real life, which beats Miss Braddon hollow."
Hume has a great turn of phrase: one character, hot on the trail of scandal, "was one of those witty men who would rather lose a friend than suppress an epigram." And sultry Queensland gets an unforgettable mention: "a profane traveller of an epigrammatic turn of mind once fittingly called it, 'An amateur hell'." 

Rating: a must read for anyone interested in the history of the crime novel or Victorian (in both senses) Australia. (I read a free manybooks.net edition with an unfortunately amount of typos) 

If you liked this: oh, surely "Miss Braddon" (Lady Audley's Secret is a cracker), though Anna Katharine Green's The Leavenworth Case is another marvellous period piece. 

4 comments:

  1. This book sounds right up my street. I'm not sure how easy it is to get hold of in the UK but I will give it a go.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Sarah - it's definitely available through Project Gutenberg if you have an e-reader: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/4223

      Delete
  2. I'm going to look for this one, too. I love Wilkie Collins, and this one makes me think of him.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Jenclair - it does have that 'sensation' feel about it. BTW I've just had a look at your blog - lots to keep me occupied there.

      Delete

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