Thursday, July 29, 2021

The Mystery of a Hansom Cab

 The Mystery of a Hansom Cab (1886) by Fergus Hume

Malcolm Royston, Melbourne cabman, is shocked to find that his drunken passenger has been murdered--poisoned with a chloroform-soaked handkerchief while the cabbie drove through the night unawares. According to his story, the man (very much alive, but also very drunk) was bundled towards his cab by a gentleman in a light-colored coat and felt hat (drawn low over the face). The gentleman claimed not to know the drunk and was merely playing good Samaritan to send him home. But when the man slumps to the ground and the gentleman gets a good look at his face, he says "You!" and walks off. He then returns hastily, saying he had changed his mind, and rides about half-way to the St. Kilda. At this point, he stopped the cab, said the man refused to have him travel the rest of the way, gave the cabbie vague directions and a half-sovereign, and walked off into the night. When Royston later stops the cab to get more precise directions, he finds his fare huddled in a corner with handkerchief across his face...dead.

And so begins the Hansom Cab mystery. The dead man has nothing about his person to identify him. The cabbie can give no distinct description of the gentleman in the light-colored coat. And with just a few meagre pointers, police detective Samuel Gorby must try and find out who the dead man was, why he was killed, and who that killer is. This all leads to a falsely accused hero, a loyal heroine, a dramatic trial with an eleventh hour witness to save the day, a dark family secret, blackmail, a search through the seedy slums of Melbourne, and a startling confession. And then Gorby isn't even the detective who solves the case. Our hero's lawyer Calton and a second detective, Kilsip, are the ones who bring the truth to light.

A few thoughts:

For as much as I heard about this being a run-away best-seller in the 19th Century (outselling Sherlock Holmes at the time) and as long as it had been, first, on my "To Be Found" list and, second when found, on my "To Be Read" stacks, you'd think this would be a much more interesting book. If for no other reason than because it had such early influence. It is, I agree, very interesting in its portrayal of Melbourne and the outlying stations in Australia--very atmospheric and great detail. It also has some memorable characters such as Mother Guttersnipe. However, much is made of the fact that the detective has an "unknown" corpse on his hands. Like this is a really BIG thing in the book. And yet--it takes Gorby (who quite frankly is no great shakes as a detective) 26 pages (and only four of them spent in actual detecting) out of 254 to discover the identity of the dead man.

And, even though Gorby completely misses it and latches onto the obvious [wrong] suspect, as soon as a certain character was introduced to us I was certain we'd just met the murderer. I didn't know the motive yet, but I was sure. There is an effort to distract the reader with a rather interesting red herring, but I stuck with my first thought and was rewarded in the end by being correct. 

Hume uses a lot of Victorian melodrama which is entertaining in and of itself and the writing is quite good and typical for the period. As a novel it is enjoyable--just not the knock-out early mystery that I'd anticipated. ★★ and 1/4.

First line: The following report appeared in the Argus newspaper of Saturday, the 28th July, 18-- "Truth is said to be stranger than fiction, and certainly the extraordinary murder which took place in Melbourne on Thursday night, or rather Friday morning, goes a long way towards verifying this saying.

 But then Calton was one of those witty men who would rather lose a friend than suppress an epigram. (p. 143)

Last line: The great steamer moved slowly out to sea, as they stood on the deck, hand clasped to hand, with the fresh salt breeze blowing keenly in their faces, it bore them away into the placid beauty of the coming night, towards the old world and the new life.


Deaths = 6 (one poisoned; one fell from height; three natural; one hanged)

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