Published in 1886 (a year before Sherlock Holmes’ first appearance), The Mystery of a Handsom Cab by Fergus Hume is a murder mystery set in Melbourne of the time. While Hume was English, his family had relocated to New Zealand when he was 3, and he himself moved to Melbourne after he graduated, and worked as a barrister’s clerk.
The Mystery of a Hansom Cab opens somewhat differently from the usual murder mystery, with a set of newspaper accounts from the ‘Argus’ newspaper reporting a baffling murder mystery. A drunk man in evening dress is put on to a handsom cab by another man in evening dress and a light coat, who leaves soon after only to return and say that he changed his mind will escort his ‘friend’ home. But after a while the man in the light coat alights, and says the man will direct the cab driver himself, but the cab driver when asking for directions finds the drunken man is dead—murdered! But there is no clue as to the identity of the dead man or the man in the light coat who has to have been the murderer. Detective Sam Gorby gets on the case, and following the few clues that he can find manages to identify the victim and the man in the light coat. The latter is arrested. But is the matter quite so simple?
Well, probably not as we soon find for when one of the leading lawyers in the city, Calton takes up the case of the arrested man, he finds there is far more to it than meets the eye. The accused man may be hiding something, but it may not have anything to do with the murder. He begins to look into the matter and alongside employs another detective, Kilsip, a sort of rival to Gorby to assist him. As they look into the matter, plenty of clues come to light and secrets are revealed. This fairly complex story plays out almost entirely in Melbourne taking us to both the homes and clubs of the rich (such as to St Kilda where some of the characters live) and also some of the more squalid quarters (Little Bourke Street at the time) in the city (besides a brief sojourn into the country).
What stands out right at the start in the book as I sort of mentioned in my description above is the very different way the story is structured. Rather than beginning with a narrative, we are introduced to the story through newspaper reports, inquest transcripts, and a reward announcement, which comprise the first three chapters. In later parts of the book too, though not continuously, letters and newspaper reports are used to carry forward the story and tie together the narrative.
Another aspect that made this story different was the detective himself or should I say themselves. There is no one detective who solves this mystery before us. The matter is started off by Gorby who finds the identity of the deceased and the man in the light coat, but then the barrister Calton and the other detective Kilsip carry forward the matter, so the solution is the effort of all these persons together rather than one ‘detective’.
The writing was very enjoyable, with references aplenty to mystery stories (for instance, The Leavenworth case to the stories of Gaboreau (whose works it seems inspired Hume to write a mystery), De Quincey’s ‘Murder Considered as One of the Fine Art’, Macbeth and various other works), besides music and poetry. There is also plenty of humour in Hume’s writing; for instance, describing a character’s enthusiastic but far from perfect rendition of a piece ‘Over the Garden Wall’ which is nonetheless praised by the character courting her, Hume writes:
So, when the fair Dora had paralysed her audience with one final bang and rattle, as if the gentleman going over the garden wall had tumbled into the cucumber-frame, Felix was loud in his expressions of delight.
The mystery I thought was fairly well done, and not one that I could immediately guess at; not having read the author before I wasn’t sure what sort of twists and turns we will encounter. Even the secret at the centre of it was one I could only partly work out, and then too, not quite the exact explanation. In fact, the answer is not absolutely confirmed till the very end. This definitely kept me reading, though perhaps getting to it was a bit more stretched than I’d have liked. Some of those scenes could have been shorter.
But a very enjoyable read for me overall for the writing, mystery and setting!
p.s. There is one bit at the end involving a couple of the male characters deciding what a couple of the female characters ought to or ought not to know which present day readers would likely have an issue with (me among them); since it related to a spoiler, I didn’t bring it up in my review specifically.
This was a pick for #AusReadingMonth hosted by Brona at This Reading Life