Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Fergus Hume: The Mystery of a Hansom Cab

Fergus Hume
The Mystery of a Hansom Cab

This is one for those of you who enjoy old and forgotten mysteries.  Fergus Hume certainly doesn't seem to be a household name, at least in the circle I bumble around in, and as for old?  Well, this book was first published 1886--yes, that's not a typo--1--8--8--6.  As you can tell from the title, it's a mystery involving a hansom cab, shades of Sherlock Holmes. It's set in Melbourne, Australia.

This is the cabbie's testimony, the driver of the hansom cab of the title. It's late at night, and he pulls up to two men, one of whom is very drunk. The drunken man suddenly lifts his face into the light, and the other recognizes him.  Disgusted he leaves.  Struggling, the cabbie finally gets the intoxicated man into his cab when the other man returns. He gets into the cab.  The cabbie drives off, and when the sober man gets off, he tells the cabbie to take the other man home.  When the cabbie gets to the destination, he discovers the man is dead and calls the police.

Detective Gorby of the Melbourne Police is assigned the case which sets up the first part of the novel as a police procedural.  We follow Detective Gorby as he follows up the clues and finally makes an arrest.

However, we haven't even come close to the halfway point, so obviously there is more to come.  There is and it's Perry Mason, or the Australian equivalent there of,  one Duncan Calton.  He takes on the defendant's case and begins his own investigation.

He comes up with some interesting bits of information but is stymied because he lacks the resources and the authority to really chase down those clues.  But, all is not lost, for Calton is shrewd, and  he knows something about the Melbourne PD.  There are actually two top detectives on the Force and Gorby is one of them.  The other is Detective Kilsip, and they hate each other.  This is not the friendly rivalry one might expect from comrades-in-arms but pure hatred.

Calton, the lawyer, takes his information to Detective Kilsip.  Kilsip believes that Gorby did arrest the right person, but there's this information given him by Calton.  Suppose there was something to this, and he could embarrass Gorby  by proving that Gorby had arrested the wrong man, and that someone else had committed the murder.  Calton now has the aid of one of the top detectives on the force.

It's a bit creaky here and there, but overall I found it an intriguing and perplexing and enjoyable read. There's also considerable humor here, some sly and some not so. 

According to the Intro, this was Hume's first novel and it was an instant success.  However, he went on to write another 140 novels, all of which were quickly forgotten.  Several of his books are available on-line, but I'm going to try the InterLibraryLoan method first.  I'm curious to discover whether this work was an accident or whether he was unjustly ignored.


  1. i like golden age and before mysteries; your post was intriguing and i don't think i've ever read anything by Hume, before, so i just ordered it... tx a lot for the description and introduction...

    1. Mudpuddle,

      I also like the early mysteries because I find much more variety and ingenuity in them when compared to too many of today's offerings.

      As I mentioned above, this was my first encounter with one of his novels, and I am going to take a look at some of his others.

      Let me know what you think of it.

  2. This is one I have on my list of possible future nominations at the 19th Century group!

    1. madamevauquer,

      I hope my post didn't persuade you to remove it from the list.

      I will vote for it.

      Have you read anything else by Hume?

    2. If anything else, Fred, it's determined me to try and move it up. I haven't read it or anything by Hume. A completely new author for me. There are several at Project Gutenberg.

    3. madamevauquer,

      Glad to hear that as I would hate to think I had discouraged someone from reading a new author. I found copies of several of his works on abebooks, but I'm going to try InterLibraryLoan first since the local library has nothing by him.

  3. Fred, thanx for hi-lighting the forgotten book and author. I'll see if I can track down something by FH. The nice thing about golden age mysteries is the absence of crass, gratuitous violence and extreme pathologies (as in contemporary slash-and-gash nightmares).

    1. R.T.,

      Yes, the older mysteries are far more varied and subtle than many of today's gorefests.

  4. I've never heard of this guy, Fred. But I'll bet his work can be found at Project Guttenberg - copyrights expired. I'm currently reading a bunch of Patricia Wentworth books whose copyrights have expired in Canada and are therefore available to be read online.

    I'm going to check and see if Fergus Hume shows up at the site. You never know...Funny thing is, I think I may have heard of this book before. But not the author. Go figure.

    1. Yvette,

      Is it possible that it's the title of a work by a different author?

      This is why I read book lists--not so much for the ranking, but for the possibility of learning about books and authors whom I have never heard of.