Wednesday, February 21, 2007

... and the grandfather of Australian crime fiction

Fergus Hume spent his childhood and early adulthood in New Zealand and then Australia before moving back to his native England. While in Australia, he wrote a crime novel that enjoyed unprecedented success. The surprise is that he published the novel, The Mystery of a Hansom Cab, in 1886.

"How strange it seems to Europeans, even to Americans, that the first crime novel to sell over half a million copes was written, set and published on the other side of the world in Melbourne, Australia," writes Stephen Knight in an introduction to a 1985 edition.

Knight discusses the novel in surprisingly modern terms: its analysis of nineteenth-century Melbourne society, its emphasis on confusion of identity, and its less than heroic heroes. The characters have a whiff of Dickens about them -- a fussy, complaining landlady, for example, or "a strikingly aristocratic individual" complete with "drooping straw-colored moustache." But the detective Gorby's investigative techniques seem far more realistic and closer to those of a modern police procedural than those of Sherlock Holmes, whose first appearance he precedes by a year.
A more useful comparison is Émile Gaboriau's Lecoq, whom Hume acknowledged as an inspiration and to whom the story alludes occasionally. These and other references within a detective story to other detective stories are another surprisingly modern touch to a story laid in gaslit rooming houses, horse-drawn cabs and cobble-stone streets.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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12 Comments:

Anonymous KarenC said...

Project Gutenberg includes a number of Fergus Hume's works that you can access on line:

http://www.gutenberg.org/browse/authors/h#a1057

February 21, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Thanks. I'm a longtime Project Gutenberg fan. P.G. also includes lots of Gaboriau in English and in French at http://www.gutenberg.org/browse/authors/g#a172

Here's another source for Fergus Hume online: http://gaslight.mtroyal.ab.ca/ferghume.htm This includes a "preface to the revised edition of 1898." An 1896 edition cleaned up some of the "seamier and more Australian references," according to Knight's preface to the 1985 reprint; I'm unsure what this online edition includes.

The preface, Hume's own, includes illuminating details of his struggles to get the novel published ("Having completed the book, I tried to get it published, but every one to whom I offered it refused even to look at the manuscript on the ground that no Colonial could write anything worth reading.") and of impostors who tried to capitalize on the novel's success.

I have the book in a conventional bound edition, but an online version makes it easier for me to sneak in some reading while at work.

February 21, 2007  
Anonymous crimeficreader said...

I love that book cover!

February 22, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Thanks for the note.

It's a gorgeous cover, though not the one of my edition. Mine shows a painting of an elegantly dressed gentleman, presumably meant to suggest the victim or possibly the murderer. The cover here suggests the street life of nineteenth-century Melbourne, which also figures in the novel. One can judge a book by its cover, though the judgment can change along with the cover.

February 22, 2007  
Blogger Blue Tyson said...

Some others at Project Gutenberg Australia, too.

US, The Secret Passage
US,The Green Mummy
US,Red Money
US,Madame Midas
US,The Mystery of a Hansom Cab
AU,The Crowned Skull
AU,The Mystery Queen
US,The Silent House
AU,Hagar of the Pawn-Shop

bt

February 22, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Thanks. I posted a while back about classic crime fiction in the public domain: http://detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/search?q=Gutenberg I cited Gaboriau, Wilkie Collins and Poe. It's nice to add Hume to that list. I'm finding The Mystery of a Hansom Cab interesting on its own terms and also as a lesson in the history of crime fiction.

February 22, 2007  
Anonymous KarenC said...

The cover of my edition is similar in design but a different colour - I've linked a picture of it from our listing of Fergus Hume's books.

http://www.austcrimefiction.org/index.php/Hume%2C_Fergus

It's an astounding output. The sheer quantity of books is fascinating - when you consider the year span.

February 24, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Thanks. It appears to be the same photograph, and the cover looks good in either color. You'll see from a comment above that I'm not the only one who likes it.

With respect to Hume's output, I think I read somewhere that he had written about 150 books. I may even have read this on your site.

February 24, 2007  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

I loved that cover as well, and I see someone is offering it for sale on amazon.uk for £350.00!

February 28, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Yikes. I like the cover, too, but not for £350, at least not at current exchange rates with the U.S. dollar.

February 28, 2007  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

Too much at any exchange rate! I remember those glorious days[for us Brits] of $2.40 to the £ pound.

March 01, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

As I remember the glory days when the U.S. dollar was worth more than the Euro.

Actually, I recently found for about $10 a copy of an out-of-print book that had been selling for between $58 and $850, so one never knows.

March 01, 2007  

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