Friday, June 4, 2010

Hansom Cab Murder Is First Blockbuster Crime Novel

 A Hansom Cab Stand by P. Stahl, 1889.

The author was a law clerk who wanted to be a playwright. When he failed miserably at it, he decided to write a novel instead. But he had no idea what to write so,

"I enquired of a leading Melbourne bookseller what style of book he sold most of. He replied that the detective stories of Gaboriau had a large sale; and as, at this time, I had never even heard of this author, I bought all his works — eleven or thereabouts — and read them carefully. The style of these stories attracted me, and I determined to write a book of the same class; containing a mystery, a murder, and a description of low life in Melbourne.

"Having completed the book, I tried to get it published, but everyone to whom I offered it refused even to look at the manuscript on the grounds that no Colonial could write anything worth reading."  

Undeterred, he finally had it privately printed.

First edition, Melbourne, 1886.

The book, published in 1886, was The Mystery of a Hansom Cab. An instant best-seller, it is considered to be “one of the most successful crime and mystery stories ever to be published” (Quayle). Its first printing of 5,000 copies sold out within weeks. Three subsequent printings, each of 10,000 copies, sold out, as well. It should have been a cash cow.

Yet it was a cash clunker for the author. 

 Fergus W. Hume.

After the initial 35,000 copies sold, Fergus W. Hume (1859-1932), born in England, raised in New Zealand, and living in Australia, sold the copyright for £50 to a character of dubious ethics, who then hot-footed it to London, established the Hansom Cab Publishing Company, had as many copies printed each month as possible, and within eighteen months of the book’s initial publication sold 250,000 books. 

In 1889, the Hansom Cab Publishing Company changed its name to Trischler & Company, Trischler being the shepherd who fleeced the lamb of his copyright. From 1889 through 1895, Trischler printed and sold 5,000 copies every month before selling the copyright to Jarrold & Son. By the turn of the century, it had been translated into twelve languages. It is the first crime novel to achieve international blockbuster status.

 First U.K. edition, 1887.

What’s the big deal?

Hume knew how to write a page-turner. The book begins as if you’ve just tuned into an episode “ripped from the headlines,” of Law & Order, the basic facts known about the crime indeed laid out as an extract from a Melbourne newspaper: Hansom cab with murder victim inside pulls up to a police station. The victim has a chloroform-soaked silk handkerchief tied around his mouth. The assassin is unknown. Time for Samuel Gorby, of the Detective Squad, Melbourne Police, to solve the crime.

Hume wrote as if he were afraid that readers, if given an opportunity, might flee when they reached the end of each paragraph. The result was a novel that dared readers to get a snack, use the bathroom, feed the kids, go to bed.

When he learned of The Mystery of a Hansom Cab’s success in England, Hume immediately raced to London. Steamship travel being what it was, the race took a few months during which he wrote another two novels. And what did he do when he finally reached London? A fool once, a fool again: He sold the books to Tischler.

 Later edition.

He had better financial luck after getting Tischler out of his life. He made money from Madame Midas (1889) and its sequel, Miss Mephistopheles (1890) but they were tales of the Australian Gold Rush  and they, as well as everything else that Hume wrote, never achieved the fantastic success of ...Hansom Cab.

An unsolvable murder. A brilliant detective. And a novel that would lead crime fiction into the future.  Not a great book, though highly readable, its importance lies in providing a model for the modern detective  novel. “The Mystery of a Hansom Cab was published at the end of we may term the pre-Holmesian era. It appeared only a year before the first printing of A Study in Scarlet” (Quayle).

Only two copies of the first edition, first printing are known to exist. Both are at Mitchell Library,  in Sydney, Australia.

The book was adapted to film three times, in 1911, 1915, and 1925.

HUME, Fergus W. The Mystery of a Hansom Cab. Melbourne: Kemp & Boyce, 1886. First edition. Octavo. Pictorial wrappers.

Quayle, Eric. Collector's Book of Detective Fiction, pp. 51-54. Clymer & Greene, Victorian Detective Fiction pp. 123-124. Hubin p. 210. A Haycraft-Queen Cornerstone volume.

Image of Stahl's Hansom Cab Stand courtesy 1st Art Gallery.
Image of the first edition of 1886 op. cit. Quayle.


  1. I am a big fan of novels and I read this novel. I have found this novel quite good. It’s really very interesting. Great work. Keep it up.
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  2. It is my hobby to read novels. I read this novel it is a very good detective story full of mystery.
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