Curiosity is an important part of the intrigue behind any detective novel. But when a story takes place somewhere exotic (and often far away), curiosity often skyrockets. Fergus Hume’s hansom cab mystery – published in 1886 – is a good example.
Set in the state of Victoria in southeastern Australia, The Mystery of a Hansom Cab takes place in the city of Melbourne. While the location may not have been “exotic” in the eyes of those reading the first 100,000 copies of the book (people who lived in Australia themselves), those who read later editions published in Great Britain and the United States were definitely intrigued.
I’m a good example of someone who’s fascinated by “everything Australia” (and New Zealand). And in the Victorian era, when travel to distant locations was much more difficult than it is today, the setting of this story was no doubt seen as even more exotic than it would be nowadays.
Hansom Cab Mystery Reveals Victorian-Era Social Issues
This hansom cab mystery is fascinating for more than its location, though. It also shines a spotlight on class divisions that existed in Victorian society – something Hume was familiar with as he lived in Melbourne at the time. And his job as a barristers’ clerk (working with lawyers/barristers) enabled him to provide details of courtroom life that most people had never heard of before.
The story begins when the body of a man is discovered inside of a hansom cab. As the story unfolds, the reader learns about a connection between the homicide victim and an influential (yet secretive) family in Melbourne. Defended by a barrister as well as a detective, the murder suspect is eventually cleared when a blackmail plot is uncovered and a connection between the prestigious Frettlby family and an illegitimate daughter, Sal Rawlins, is found.
In the end, soon after the head of the Frettlby family dies, the murderer’s identity becomes known. Once Brian Fitzgerald (the wealthy wool merchant who was the murder suspect) is cleared, he and Madge Frettlby are married and sail to Europe for their honeymoon.
Who Was Fergus Hume?
Fergusson Wright Hume (Fergus Hume) was only three years old when his family emigrated from Worcestershire, England, to Dunedin, New Zealand, where his father helped found a therapeutic community and psychiatric hospital in 1882. After passing the bar in New Zealand, Hume moved to Melbourne, where he worked for barristers as a clerk.
Hume’s original goal was to become a playwright, and he wrote the book in an effort to attract the attention of theater managers. However, the book eventually attracted the attention of far more people than that.
Despite the amazing success of this book, Hume never profited from its sales. He ended up selling the copyright to his book to an Australian publisher who began selling it overseas. Apparently, though, Hume DID retain dramatization rights for the book.
The book is reported to have out-sold the 1887 edition of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet – where readers were first introduced to Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.
Listen to the Hansom Cab Mystery Podcast Episode!
Be sure to check out the Tea, Tonic, & Toxin podcast to catch the episode on Fergus Hume’s The Mystery of a Hansom Cab. You can also read blog posts about previous podcasts and book reviews on their site’s “Teasers & Tidbits” page.