Who was Fergus Hume? And why was his Victorian debut novel, The Mystery of a Hansom Cab, so popular worldwide?
If you are a fan of Victorian-era detective novels (and I’m guessing you probably are if you’re reading this blog), you may already know the answer to the question “Who was Fergus Hume?” That’s because you already know he was the author of one of the most popular mystery novels ever written: The Mystery of a Hansom Cab.
But there are many aspects of Hume’s life that might surprise you.
For instance, although most mystery fans know the author by the name of Fergus, his full name was Ferguson Wright Hume. And although he was born in England, when he was three, his family moved to coastal Dunedin, New Zealand (in the southeastern corner of the country).
Soon after the move, his father became supervisor of an insane asylum, but wanting to provide a more humane environment for patients, Hume’s father opened a different facility several years later which still exists today (Ashburn Clinic), where mentally ill patients are treated with many of the same innovative and therapeutic methods Hume’s father started.
In Love with Plays
Fergus Hume didn’t actually start out wanting to write books. He wanted to be a playwright. So, in an effort to attract the attention of theater managers, Hume decided to write a detective novel (a new – but popular – genre in the 1880s). The result was The Mystery of a Hansom Cab.
Because Melbourne publishers refused to even look at the book, Hume published the book himself. Three weeks after doing so, all 5,000 copies were sold out. Months later, he sold his rights to the book to a group of Australian speculators … for a mere £50. This meant that, even though his book was reprinted several times, Hume never received another penny for the book.
Later fans of the Hansom Cab weren’t completely sure he WAS the author of that story … although he did write a preface to a revised edition in 1896. For some reason, rumors about Hume NOT being the author of the book circulated for years.
Following the huge success of his first book, Hume chose to focus his attention on writing books rather than plays. And he did so for the rest of his life.
So Who WAS Fergus Hume?
Fergus Hume was a frustrated playwright who stumbled upon fame unexpectedly when the book he THOUGHT would lead to him writing plays turned out to be the catalyst that turned him into a full-time novelist.
Embracing his new identity, Hume moved back to England where he settled first in London. Later, at the invitation of Reverend Thomas Noon Talfourd Major, Hume moved to the parish of Thundersley in Essex. He spent 30 years there, publishing over 130 novels and several collections of mystery stories. None, however, met with the same success as his first book.
(Prior to writing his first book, Hume had worked in the legal field as a clerk for barristers – making it easy for him to include accurate descriptions of courtroom scenes in the novel.)
Fergus Hume was also known to be very religious – not surprising for the son of a man who was so devout that he was willing to “break the mold” and do away with methods of treatment common for mentally ill patients in that day. In fact, Hume’s faith could explain why he was invited to Thundersley by Reverend Major.
Unfortunately, Fergus Hume’s popularity faded after the start of World War I, when his American publisher began focusing on more popular authors. It’s believed that Hume stopped writing books by the early 1920s. Sadly, just 10 years later (he passed away in 1932), Hume was mentioned in newspapers as “A Forgotten Author.”
Learn About Other Victorian Detective Novels
The next time someone asks you “Who was Fergus Hume?” you’ll be able to fill them in on a lot more than the fact that he wrote a book called The Mystery of a Hansom Cab. Let them know what you’ve learned from this post.
Or better yet, send them the link to this page about our book club! You’ll see a list of the books we’ve already studied and a schedule for the ones that are coming up. Be sure to subscribe to the Tea, Tonic & Toxin podcast today!