Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Mystery of a Hansom Cab (1886) by Fergus Hume

Before Sherlock Holmes, there was The Mystery of a Hansom Cab.  From what I can gather it was very successful at the time and in the introduction to the revised 1898 edition Hume tells stories of his arrival in London and finding out that people were impersonating him.  It was like a prototype of The Da Vinci Code.  (want to see what was popular and has gone out of favour go to a charity book sale - I've seen entire tables of The Da Vinci Code, Twilight and 50 Shades.)

After Conan Doyle read this story, he was inspired to write the Sherlock Holmes stories.  Doyle was less than impressed with the novel, calling it 'a slight tale." But the sales of Hansom Cab were greater than A Study In Scarlet.

It's one of the first Australian works to be successfully sold internationally.

The story opens with a murder - a dead body is found in a hansom cab.  Victorian State Detective Gorby is assigned to the case.  He successfully identifies the body as Oliver Whyte and discovers that Whyte was chasing Madge Frettlby who is in love with Brian Fitzgerald.  Fitzgerald, oddly enough, took exception to Whyte chasing his girlfriend. and had been reported to have made threats against his rival. 

Gorby finds out that Fitzgerald saw Whyte on the night in question but has no alibi for the time of the murder and Whyte's missing glove is found when he is arrested.  The trial is a sensation and is the talk of the colony.  It is revealed that Fitzgerald does have an alibi and the witness arrives on the last day of trial. 

I feel poor Gorby gets the short end of the stick in this story -  his arrest is perfectly reasonable.  Fitzgerald is seen with victim, and the cab driver says Fitzgerald got in the cab with the victim. His arrival home fits with the timeline. 

It's only for that Fitzgerald's barrister Carlton hiring Gorby's rival police Detective Kilslip to continue the investigation that we ultimately discover who the killer was and his motive.

The Mystery of a Hansom Cab is not just a murder mystery but a family drama as the investigation of Oscar Whyte's death brings to light many secrets of the Frettlby family as we discover secrets from when Madge's father was a young man and just what connection he had to Oliver Whyte and why he was so keen to marry Madge off this man he hardly knew.

I won't spoil it but one of the themes of the novel is that the suns of the father are visited on the children and that destiny can be changed.

Fergus Hume wrote a lot of other novels and I may dip into his other works.  I wonder if he revisited Gorby or Kilslip in any of them.

There was once scene that had me intrigued - Carlton is trying to get Fitzgerald to reveal his alibi and mention that he telegraphed "I telegraphed home to a friend of mine, who is a bit of an amateur detective, ‘Find out the name and all about the woman who left England in the John Elder on the 21st day of August, 18 — as wife of Oliver Whyte.’ Mirabile dictu, he found out all about her, and knowing, as you do, what a maelstrom of humanity London is, you must admit my friend was clever."

I wonder who this clever amateur detective could be? 

After I watched this I was able to watch the 2012 TV movie made by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation - It was excellently cast and I really enjoyed it.

1 comment:

  1. Michael Dirda, one of my favorite critics (i.e. one of the few that I can read) reviews the book here: