A bestseller in Melbourne, then Europe. A stage adaptation that ran for 500 nights in London. Not one, but three, film adaptations, with a new telemovie version currently in production.
No, it’s not the publishing success story of 2012, but of 1886. Self-publishing is nothing new. Fergus Hume published his bestseller The Mystery of a Hansom Cab in 1886, a year before Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes made his first appearance. Hume’s crime novel outsold Conan Doyle and Wilkie Collins.
So how did Fergus Hume, a colonial, become successful and go on to write 130 more novels?
He had to self-publish in the beginning because no-one would look at his manuscript on the ground that “no Colonial could write anything worth reading”. Hume must have been influenced by this cultural cringe, and may also have been savvy enough to consider an international market while he was working on his story, for he describes the social and physical settings of Melbourne by comparing them to places in London and Paris (‘real’ cities compared to the fledgling colonial metropolis):
“Mr Calton, however, did not need such a warning, for the neighbourhood through which they were passing was so like that of the Seven Dials in London, that he kept to the side of his guide as did Dante to that of Virgil in the Infernal Regions. It was not quite dark, for the atmosphere had that luminous kind of haze so observable in Australian twilights, and this weird light was just sufficient to make the darkness visible.”
Fergus Hume, The Mystery of a Hansom Cab, Chapter Fifteen
That is how Australian writers were often compelled to work, seeing everything through the prism of the ‘real’ world elsewhere, or explaining the local conditions apologetically for the ‘real’ audience:
“A hot December day, with a cloudless blue sky, and a sun blazing down on the earth … Such a description of snowy December must sound strange to English ears, and a hot Christmas day must strike them as being as fantastic as the play in a Midsummer Night’s Dream … But here in Australia is the realm of topsy-turveydom …”
Fergus Hume, The Mystery of a Hansom Cab, Chapter Twenty One
These asides about the ‘oddness’ of Australia date Hume’s novel. Now, writers are advised to ‘write what you know’, local setting and all, trusting to the idea that the universal aspects of your story (the human condition) will come through if you are true to yourself and your surroundings.
When Hume’s story was published in London, some of the Australian references were removed for the benefit of an international audience. The Text Classics edition restores the original Australian references, and Simon Caterson’s interesting introduction puts The Mystery of a Hansom Cab into context as a successful predecessor of the modern crime novel.
One of the legacies of British colonialism is the feeling that ‘making it’ in Australia doesn’t count; you have to make it overseas. In Hume’s day that meant London or Paris, and he left for England in 1888. Times have changed but the cultural cringe continues. Australia’s literary lions, such as Peter Carey, feel they must live in New York, or London—anywhere but Australia—to be taken seriously or to escape the provincial mindset.
If The Mystery of a Hansom Cab is no longer world-famous, it might not be solely a result of the cultural cringe. Detective fiction came to centre on personality. One of the most enjoyable aspects of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories is the pairing of the arrogant, reclusive, bohemian, cocaine-addicted Holmes with the dependable, loyal, duty-bound and humble Watson. Agatha Christie’s crime stories also revolve around the personalities of Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot. Later crime series, such as Inspector Morse or the Phryne Fisher murder mysteries, also rely upon the quirky charms of their lead characters and side-kicks.
The Mystery of the Hansom Cab is not really about the detectives (two rivals in this story, one of whom drops out of the story half-way through), but society and the crimes committed to get into (or stay in) a higher social class. Australia was a place where people could escape their past, get rich quick and return to Europe in a new guise. I found it interesting that Fergus Hume—a lawyer who hoped to become a playwright—used a series of documents throughout his narrative (published in 1886) in much the same way that Bram Stoker—a lawyer who became a business manager for the Lyceum Theatre—later used that device in Dracula (published in 1897).
The Mystery of a Hansom Cab features a large cast of characters from the richest and poorest classes. The narrative is a cocktail of social realism (court proceedings and poverty in the slums); low comedy (featuring caricatures, not characters, with jokey names such as Mother Guttersnipe, Signor Thumpanini, and Dora Featherweight); suspenseful murder mystery and melodrama. There’s also a chaser of Victorian sentimentality (complete with love reaffirmed as a ship sails off at sunset).
Hume’s novel is enjoyable as light entertainment. I’d compare Hume to Dickens, but unfortunately Hume’s prose is not memorable. The pleasure I had in reading The Mystery of a Hansom Cab came from Hume’s management of the plot and the added interest of reading a story set in a familiar city. It is something, however, to know that a ‘colonial’ could get his self-published story out into the world, even if he had to leave Australia to do it.