Fergus Hume’s The Mystery of a Hansom Cab is the story of an illegitimate child, a fear of family scandal and a homicide. Promoted as a startling and realistic story of Melbourne social life, the novel exemplifies the idea of a sensational mystery: a man murdered in a cab with no witnesses and no immediate motive. It offers a thrilling detective story as well as commentary on various aspects of Australia during the late 1800s.
Its author was born Fergusson Wright Hume in England on 8 July 1859. Migrating with his family to New Zealand as a young child, he was educated in Dunedin on the South Island. Hume went on to study law and, shortly after being admitted to the Bar, he migrated again — this time to Melbourne, Australia. Taking up a position with a local solicitor, Hume used one of the world’s great cities to set about establishing his literary career. The Mystery of a Hansom Cab, his first book, gave that career an incredible start.
Among the fascinating aspects of this pioneering crime novel is Hume’s engagement with ideas of punishment. In a chapter titled The Hands of Justice, Dr Chinston predicts that the man responsible for the murder will commit suicide. The prisoner politely obliges, on the very next page, when he 'hang[s] himself in his cell during the night'. Despite having trained for the legal profession, Hume preferred, in this instance at least, a far neater and quicker ending than a trial and subsequent sentencing could provide.
'I tried to get it published,' Hume complained after completing the novel, 'but everyone to whom I offered it refused even to look at the manuscript on the ground that no Colonial could write anything worth reading.' A determined and entrepreneurial Hume would set about the task of self-publishing and, in 1886, the printers Kemp and Boyce produced 5000 copies (with Hume claiming that all copies were sold within three weeks).