The Mystery of a Hansom Cab

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The Mystery of a Hansom Cab
Cover art for 'The mystery of a hansom cab', Kemp and Boyce, Melbourne, 1887 (attrib)
AuthorFergus Hume
PublisherFergus Hume
Publication date
LC ClassLCCN ca08-675
Followed byProfessor Brankel's Secret 

The Mystery of a Hansom Cab is a mystery fiction novel by the 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).[1]

The Mystery of a Hansom Cab received praise in works including A Companion to Crime Fiction,[2] A History of the Book in Australia 1891–1945,[3] and A History of Victoria,[4] and was featured in the book Vintage Mystery and Detective Stories.[5] A parody version was published in 1888, and film adaptations were produced in 1911, 1915 and 1925.[6][7][8] The story was adapted into a BBC Radio serial in 1958,[9] a stage play in 1990,[10] a radio promotion in 1991[11] and a telemovie in 2012.[12]


Fergus Hume c. 1882

Originally from Britain, Fergusson Wright Hume worked as a barrister's clerk in Melbourne, Australia, at the time of the book's first publication.[2] He went on to become a prolific author, and wrote more than 130 novels in fiction subjects including adventure and science fiction.[2][3][5]


A Hansom cab

The Mystery of a Hansom Cab takes place in Melbourne, Australia, and involves an investigation into a homicide, after a corpse is discovered in the early hours, in a hansom cab. Melbourne plays a significant role in the plot and, as the author describes, "Over all the great city hung a cloud of smoke like a pall."[13] The killer's identity is not as significant a revelation in the story as are the roles of the influential and secretive Frettlby family, and their secret: they have a daughter living on the streets, and the woman everyone assumes is their daughter is illegitimate. The class divide between Melbourne's wealthy and less fortunate is addressed throughout the plot.[14]

The protagonist in the novel is a policeman named Detective Gorby, who is given the task of solving the murder.[15] As Hume describes the character's investigative skills, "He looked keenly round the room, and his estimate of the dead man's character was formed at once."[15] The author commented in a later introduction, "All of the scenes in the book, especially the slums, are described from personal observation; and I passed a great many nights in Little Bourke Street, gathering material".[2] At this time, the street was notorious as a place frequented by prostitutes and criminals.[16]

Publication history[edit]

The Mystery of a Hansom Cab was first published in Melbourne in 1886 and in Britain in 1887[2] (the author self-published the first edition)[1][5] and in the United States in 1888, by George Munro.[17] Hume wrote an introduction to a revised edition published in 1898,[2] and later publications have included those by the publishers Arno in 1976, and by Dover in 1982,[18][19] and a new Australian edition with an introduction by Simon Caterson, in 1999 by The Text Publishing Company, which has been reprinted several times.[20]



"A Concise History of Australia" notes that the book became an international bestseller.[13] A Companion to Australian Literature since 1900 noted The Mystery of a Hansom Cab provided Australia with its first international bestseller.[1] and Vintage Mystery and Detective Stories characterized the book as the best-selling detective novel of the 19th century.[5] In Australia, the book sold 25,000 copies in its first print run, and 100,000 copies in its first two print runs.[3][21] In Britain, in its first six months after publication, 300,000 copies were sold,[2][14] and, in 1888, sales continued in thousands in Britain each week.[2][14] According to A Gregarious Culture (2001), "sales of The Mystery of a Hansom Cab, published in 1886, would reach astronomical figures". Franklin, Roe & Bettison (2001) Over 500,000 copies were sold in Britain, by the publishing company Jarrold.[15] In the United States, an additional 500,000 copies were sold.[5]

The author did not benefit from the sales of the work, as he had sold his rights to it for £50.[15] A Gregarious Culture identifies "the only known [complete] copy of the first edition" of the book as "a treasure" of the Mitchell Library at State Library of New South Wales.[6] Illustrated London News reported in 1888 on the popularity of the book, "Persons were found everywhere eagerly devouring the realistic sensational tale of Melbourne social life. Whether travelling by road, rail or river the unpretending little volume was ever present in some companion's or stranger's hands."[2][14] The book outsold the worldwide 1887 publication of the Sherlock Holmes novel A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle.[1]


"The most spectacular reimagining of the sensation novel"

A Companion to Crime Fiction[2]

  • Charles J. Rzepka and Lee Horsley's A Companion to Crime Fiction (2010) called The Mystery of a Hansom Cab "The most spectacular reimagining of the sensation novel, and a crucial point in the genre's transformation into detective fiction".Rzepka & Horsley (2010).
  • A History of the Book in Australia 1891–1945 (2001) described the book as "a lively and engaging crime novel which used its Melbourne setting to considerable effect". Lyons & Arnold (2001).
  • Geoffrey Blainey wrote in A History of Victoria, The Mystery of a Hansom Cab "did more than any book to give the outside world a picture of Melbourne of the late 1880s".Blainey (2007)
  • David Stuart Davies featured the work in his book Vintage Mystery and Detective Stories, writing, "The author was determined to make a fortune by creating a story 'containing a mystery, a murder, and a description of low life in Melbourne'. He succeeded. Like a rich plum in our vintage mystery pudding we include the whole novel in this collection."Davies (2006)


A parody edition, titled The Mystery of a Wheelbarrow (1888), is attributed to a W. Humer Ferguson.[6][22] The same year, it was adapted for the stage by Arthur Law.[23]

The Mystery of a Hansom Cab (1911) is a film produced by Amalgamated Pictures, an Australian adaptation of the book.[8][24]

In 1915, the book was again adapted into a film with screenplay by Eliot Stannard.[7] Directed by Harold Weston, the film starred the actors Milton Rosmer, Fay Temple, A. V. Bramble, James Dale and Arthur Walcott.[25][7][26]

A remake of the 1911 version of the film was produced in 1925, in Australia.[8] Made by Pyramid Pictures, The Mystery of a Hansom Cab cast included Arthur Shirley, Grace Glover, Godfrey Cass, Cora Warner and Isa Crossley.[8][27]

The Mystery of a Hansom Cab was a 1935 reissue of the 1925 Australian silent film. It was released by Pathescope.[28]

The book was read out on ABC radio in 1954.[29]

A six-part radio serial adaptation was broadcast on the BBC Light Programme from 2 November to 7 December 1958.

The Mystery of a Hansom Cab (1958)[9] 
Writer Michael Hardwick
Based on the novel by Fergus Hume
Production Audrey Cameron
Five Thousand Pounds
A Confession
A Certificate of Marriage
The Queen of Little Bourke Street
Duncan Calton for the Defence
In the Queen's Name!
Episodes 1 2 3 4 5 6
Oliver Whyte
Brown, club porter
Leigh Crutchley 1
Felix Rolleston
John Hollis 1
Passer-by Joseph Shaw 1
other parts played by
John Scott 1
Coroner Frederick Treves 1
Dr. Chinston John Graham 1 5 6
Detective Sam Gorby Russell Napier 1 2 3 5 6
Sergeant Joseph John Cazabon 1 3 5 6
Mrs Hableton
Slum woman
Shirley Cameron 1
Roger Moreland Bruce Stewart 1 3 6
Mrs Sampson Brenda Dunrich 1 2 4 5
Madge Frettlby Gwenda Wilson 1 2 3 4 5
Brian Fitzgerald Allan McClelland 1 2 3 4 5 6
Mark Frettlby Harold Young 1 2 3 4
Duncan Calton Frank Duncan 2 3 4 5 6
Ma Guttersnipe Gwen Day Burroughs 2 3 4
Graham, Calton's clerk John Bennett 2 3 6
Crown Prosecutor
Mr Raphael, a chemist
Leon Peers 3
George Nicholas Gabriel Woolf 3
Sal Rawlins Paddy Turner 3 5
A boy Seamus Grant 3
other parts played by Sheila Grant 1
other parts played by members of the cast 1 3

The Melbourne television station GTV-9 produced a version of the play in 1962, adapted by Barry Pree, as part of The General Motors Hour.[30]

Michael Rodger adapted the story as a stage play in 1990 and a radio promotion in 1991 by Queensland Performing Arts Trust.[10][11]

Burberry Entertainment, in association with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, produced a telemovie adaptation which was premiered on 28 October 2012 and stars John Waters, Oliver Ackland, Helen Morse and Jessica De Gouw.[12][31]

A German translation of the novel appeared in 1895 under the title "Das Geheimnis eines Fiakers", shifting the setting of the story from Melbourne to Vienna and also changing the names of the characters. This adaptation was re-published in a modernized version by Hainer Plaul in the German Democratic Republic in 1984 under the title "Das Geheimnnis des Fiakers".

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Birns & McNeer 2007.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Rzepka & Horsley 2010.
  3. ^ a b c Lyons & Arnold 2001.
  4. ^ Blainey 2007.
  5. ^ a b c d e Davies 2006.
  6. ^ a b c Franklin, Roe & Bettison 2001.
  7. ^ a b c Young 2010.
  8. ^ a b c d Reade 1980.
  9. ^ a b
    Radio Times (2 Nov 1958), "1 In the Queen's Name!", The Mystery of a Hansom Cab, vol. 141, Light Programme, p. 25
    Radio Times (9 Nov 1958), "2 Duncan Calton for the Defence", The Mystery of a Hansom Cab, vol. 141, Light Programme, p. 25
    Radio Times (16 Nov 1958), "3 The Queen of Little Bourke Street", The Mystery of a Hansom Cab, vol. 141, Light Programme, p. 25
    Radio Times (23 Nov 1958), "4 A Certificate of Marriage", The Mystery of a Hansom Cab, vol. 141, Light Programme, p. 25
    Radio Times (30 Nov 1958), "5 A Confession", The Mystery of a Hansom Cab, vol. 141, Light Programme, p. 25
    Radio Times (7 Dec 1958), "6 Five Thousand Pounds", The Mystery of a Hansom Cab, vol. 141, Light Programme, p. 21
  10. ^ a b OCLC 224191521
  11. ^ a b OCLC 224185898
  12. ^ a b Diaz 2012.
  13. ^ a b Macintyre 2009.
  14. ^ a b c d Parrinder & Gasiorek 2011.
  15. ^ a b c d Pierce 2009.
  16. ^ Brown-May 1998.
  17. ^ LCCN ca08-675
  18. ^ LCCN 75-32754
  19. ^ LCCN 82-9461
  20. ^ Hume 2013.
  21. ^ Pierce 2009, pp. 114, 274.
  22. ^ OCLC 221666246
  23. ^ Plarr 1899, p. 626.
  24. ^ The Mystery of a Hansom Cab (1911) at IMDb Edit this at Wikidata
    - Mystery of a Hansom Cab at AllMovie
  25. ^ The Mystery of a Hansom Cab (1915) at IMDb Edit this at Wikidata
  26. ^ Lincoln 1916.
  27. ^ The Mystery of a Hansom Cab (1925) at IMDb Edit this at Wikidata
  28. ^ Kinematograph Weekly 1935.
  29. ^ "EARLY THRILLER AS SERIAL", ABC weekly, Sydney: ABC, 18 Sep 1954, retrieved 16 Feb 2024 – via Trove
  30. ^ The Age 1961.
  31. ^ "The Mystery of a Hansom Cab". Museums Victoria. Archived from the original on 24 Nov 2015.


  1. Diaz, Amanda (30 Apr 2012). "Filming commences on ABC telemovie The Mystery of a Hansom Cab". Archived from the original on 11 Jan 2020.
    The Mystery of a Hansom Cab (2012 TV Movie) at IMDb Edit this at Wikidata
  2. Birns, Nicholas; McNeer, Rebecca (2007). A Companion to Australian Literature since 1900. Camden. pp. 391–393. ISBN 978-1571133496 – via Google Books.
  3. Blainey, Geoffrey (2007). A History of Victoria. CUP. p. 72. ISBN 978-0521869775 – via Google Books.
  4. Brown-May, Andrew (1998). Melbourne street life: the itinerary of our days. Australian Scholarly/Arcadia and Museum Victoria. p. 28. ISBN 978-1875606467.
  5. Davies, David Stuart (2006). Vintage Mystery and Detective Stories. Wordsworth. p. 15–17, 1059, 1063. ISBN 978-1840220650.
  6. Franklin, Miles; Roe, Jill; Bettison, Margaret (2001). A Gregarious Culture: Topical Writings of Miles Franklin. UQP. pp. 227–230. ISBN 0702232378 – via Google Books.
  7. Hume, Fergus (2013). The Mystery of a Hansom Cab. Introduction: Simon Caterson. Text Publishing. ISBN 978-1921922220.
  8. "The Mystery of a Hansom Cab". Kinematograph Weekly Yearbook. Kinematograph Publications: 91, 96. 1935.
  9. Lyons, Martyn; Arnold, John (2001). A History of the Book in Australia 1891–1945: A National Culture in a Colonised Market. UQP. pp. 241–243. ISBN 978-0702232343.
  10. Macintyre, Stuart (2009). A Concise History of Australia (3rd ed.). CUP. pp. 111–113. ISBN 978-0521516082 – via Google Books.
  11. Parrinder, Patrick; Gasiorek, Andrzej, eds. (2011). The Oxford History of the Novel in English. Vol. 4: The Reinvention of the British and Irish Novel 1880–1940. OUP. pp. 213–216. ISBN 978-0199559336 – via Google Books.
  12. Pierce, Peter (2009). The Cambridge History of Australian Literature. CUP. pp. 114, 274. ISBN 978-0521881654.
  13. Plarr, Victor (1899). "Law, William Arthur". Men and Women of the Time: A Dictionary of Contemporaries (15th ed.). Routledge. p. 626. OCLC 457880067.
  14. Reade, Eric (1980). History and Heartburn: The Saga of Australian Film, 1896–1978. Fairleigh Dickinson UP. p. 44. ISBN 978-0838630822 – via Google Books.
  15. Rzepka, Charles J; Horsley, Lee (2010). A Companion to Crime Fiction. Wiley-Blackwell. pp. 107–109. ISBN 978-1405167659.
  16. "Author, 23, In Rare Double". The Age. Melbourne. 17 Aug 1961. p. TV-Radio Guide 2.
  17. Lincoln, W J (9 Feb 1916). "Picture Profiles in the Olden Days | Random Reminiscences". The Winner. Melbourne. p. 11 – via NLA.
  18. Young, R G (2010). The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Film. Applause. p. 434. ISBN 978-1557832696 – via Google Books.

Further reading[edit]

  1. "Australian Classics: Fergus Hume's Mystery of a Hansom Cab". The Book Show. Radio National. 29 Dec 2009.
  2. Binyon, T J (1989). Murder Will Out: The Detective in Fiction. OUP. pp. 70–71. ISBN 978-0192192233.
  3. "Fergus Hume". Dictionary of Australian Biography (1949).
  4. "Fergus Hume". Fantastic Fiction.
  5. Kirk, Pauline M (1972). "Hume, Fergusson Wright (Fergus) (1859–1932)". Australian Dictionary of Biography (1972). Vol. 4. MUP. pp. 443–444.
  6. Pittard, Christopher (2008). "The Real Sensation of 1887: Fergus Hume and The Mystery of a Hansom Cab". Clues: A Journal of Detection. 26 (1): 37–48. doi:10.3172/CLU.26.1.37. ISSN 0742-4248.
  7. Sussex, Lucy (2016). Blockbuster! Fergus Hume and The Mystery of a Hansom Cab. Text Publishing. ISBN 978-1922147943.

External links[edit]