I’ve been reading 19th century detective stories for my Victorian Crime Club and recently I read ‘The Mystery of a Hansom Cab’ by Fergus Hume. First published in 1886, this mystery fiction novel is set in Melbourne, Australia, where it sold 100,000 copies during its first print run. When it was published in Britain and the US, it sold half a million copies worldwide, outperforming A Study in Scarlet, the first novel of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Yet, despite its phenomenal success at the time, it is little known today.
The action begins in the early hours of July morning when a driver discovers a dead man in his hansom cab. The victim, an intoxicated passenger, turned to be Oliver Whyte, and he had been murdered by the use of chloroform. The investigation of the case is undertaken first by Detective Gorby and then follows a series of twists and turns, as others attempt to solve this baffling puzzle. When Brian Fitzgerald, an acquaintance of the murdered man, is arrested, his barrister, Calton, takes on the case and places it in the hands of another detective, Kilsip. As the story unfolds, secrets rise to the surface, including an illicit affair with a burlesque dancer, an illegitimate child and a connection between one of Melbourne’s elite with the seedy underworld of the city. There is also a love story between Fitzgerald and the daughter of the businessman at the heart of the mystery.
More Wilkie Collins than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Mystery of a Hansom Cab is a fine detective novel, with all the elements of the genre. There is little emphasis throughout the novel on detective work, but at the end, it is Detective Kilsip who resolves the crime and catches the perpetrator. The characters are convincing and the reader gains a sense of their motivation, which is often absent in real-life mysteries. The descriptions of Melbourne, especially of the slums, are evocative and well crafted. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this novel and it definitely deserves more exposure than it currently seems to have.
The most striking aspect of this detective novel for me was that it is startlingly similar to Detective Caminada’s signature case, which took place in real life, just three years later. Referred to at the time as ‘The Mystery of a Hansom Cab’, the case begins in exactly the same way: the death of an intoxicated man in a cab and the disappearance of his companion. The similarity between Hume’s novel and the Manchester Cab Mystery, investigated by Caminada ends after the opening, mainly because there is no insight into the motivation and back story of the real-life murderer. However, the resolution of both cases is almost spookily identical. Both crimes, fictional and authentic, were committed by poisoning, one chloroform and the other, chloral hydrate, and even more astonishing is that, in each case, the crime was solved by the detective identifying the person who purchased the poison. At the end of The Mystery of a Hansom Cab, Detective Kilsip is rewarded so handsomely that he gives up his sleuthing for an easier life. In real life, however, Detective Caminada carried on fighting crime for another decade.
The next book in my Victorian Crime Club will be The Female Detective: The Original Lady Detective, published in 1864 by Andrew Forrester. I can’t wait to explore a woman’s perspective on being a super-sleuth and, as always, if you’d like to read along, it would be great to have your comments.