Fergus Hume (1859–1932)

478315Fergusson Wright (Fergus) Hume (1859-1932), novelist, was born on 8 July 1859 in England, the second son of  James Hume. The family migrated to New Zealand where the father helped to found Ashburn Hall in Dunedin. Fergus was educated at Otago Boys’ High School, continued his literary and legal studies at the University of Otago and was articled to the attorney-general, Robert Stout. Soon after his admission to the Bar in 1885 Hume left for Melbourne where he became managing clerk for the solicitor, E. S. Raphael.

With ambitions as a playwright, Hume decided to write a novel to attract the attention of theatre managers. On the advice of a leading Melbourne bookseller he chose the style of Emile Gaboriau, then popular in translations, and produced The Mystery of a Hansom Cab, a ‘crude but ingenious’ tale in which he based his descriptions of low life on his knowledge of Little Bourke Street. Melbourne publishers ‘refused even to look at the manuscript on the ground that no Colonial could write anything worth reading’, so he determined to publish it himself and had 5000 copies printed by Kemp & Boyce in 1886. According to Hume this edition was sold out in three weeks and another was demanded. Some months later he sold his rights to a group of Australian speculators for £50. In London the great success of the Hansom Cab Publishing Co.’s edition in 1887 led to many more printings for which Hume received no further payment. Even his claim to authorship and original publication was publicly disputed, although he wrote a preface to a revised edition in 1896.

With the success of this first novel and the publication of another, Professor Brankel’s Secret (c.1886), Hume chose a literary career and in 1888 settled in England. There he published some 140 novels, most of them mystery stories set in England, America, Africa or on the Continent which he often visited. Only Madam Midas (1888) and its sequel Miss Mephistopheles (1890) were set in Australia, although fifteen others had colonial associations. His novels had clever plots but no great literary worth and none enjoyed the popularity of The Hansom Cab which played an important part in the growth of escapist literature.

Hume was reputed to be deeply religious and to avoid publicity but in his later years he lectured at young people’s clubs and debating societies. He died at Thundersley, Essex, on 12 July 1932. (Source: Australian Dictionary of Biography)

Several works by Hume can be downloaded from Project Gutenberg.

Further reading:

c79c6fbf9a6eb85837bdc58c5a39e285From Wikipedia: The Mystery of a Hansom Cab is a mystery fiction novel by Australian writer Fergus Hume. The book was first published in Australia in 1886. Set in Melbourne, the story focuses on the investigation of a homicide involving a body discovered in a hansom cab, as well as an exploration into the social class divide in the city. The book was successful in Australia, selling 100,000 copies in the first two print runs. It was then published in Britain and the United States, and went on to sell over half a million copies worldwide, outselling the first of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novels, A Study in Scarlet (1887).

Reception of The Mystery of a Hansom Cab was positive; it received praise in works including A Companion to Crime Fiction, A History of the Book in Australia 1891–1945, and A History of Victoria, and was featured in the book Vintage Mystery and Detective Stories. A parody version was published in 1888, and film adaptations were produced in 1911, 1915, and 1925. The story was adapted into a BBC Radio serial in 1958, a stage play in 1990, a radio promotion in 1991, and a telemovie in 2012.

Product Description: In the dead of night on a lonely Melbourne street, a cabbie discovers to his horror that his drunken passenger has been murdered — poisoned with a chloroform-saturated handkerchief. The killer, his motive, and even the victim’s identity are unknown. The last person to be seen in the victim’s company cannot be identified and has vanished into the streets of the Australian metropolis. The solution lies within a labyrinth of dark secrets, missing papers, evasive witnesses, and a deadly game of blackmail.

Ever since the publication of this 1886 mystery, the two-wheeled carriage known as a hansom cab has been linked in the popular imagination with sinister affairs. The Mystery of a Hansom Cab was the unlikely first literary product of a young barrister’s clerk and quickly rose from its obscure initial publication to become one of the 19th century’s bestselling detective novels. Reputed to have inspired the creation of Sherlock Holmes, this ingeniously plotted, fast-paced, and engrossing tale remains a delight for lovers of Victorian mysteries.

Reprint of the Leisure Library, London, 1935 edition. (Source: Dover Books)

The Mystery of the Hansom Cab has been reviewed, among others, at Golden Age of Detection Wiki, Past Offences, the crime segments, and Dfordoom’s Reviews.

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