The Mystery of a Hansom Cab

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The Mystery of a Hansom Cab
The Mystery of a Hansom Cab.jpg
London edition (1888)
Author Fergus Hume
Country Australia
Language English
Subject Mystery
Genre Fiction
Publisher Fergus Hume
Publication date
Pages 164
ISBN 1-153-71449-3
OCLC 8476357
LC Class ca 08000675
Followed by Professor Brankel's Secret

The Mystery of a Hansom Cab is a mystery fiction novel by English 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 500,000 copies worldwide, outselling the first of Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes novels, A Study in Scarlet (1887).[1]

Reception of The Mystery of a Hansom Cab was positive; it 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 play for the theatre in 1990,[10] a radio promotion in 1991[11] and a telemovie in 2012.[12]


Fergus Hume c. 1882

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


The story of The Mystery of a Hansom Cab takes place in Melbourne, Australia and involves an investigation into a homicide where the deceased was discovered in the evening inside of a hansom cab. The city of Melbourne is itself a significant factor in the plot and setting and is described by the author: "Over all the great city hung a cloud of smoke like a pall."[13] Throughout the novel the influential and secretive Frettlby family is a key element and it is revealed later in the book that they have an illegitimate daughter living on the streets. The identity of the killer is not as much of a significant revelation in the story, as is the role of the Frettlby family and their secret. The class divide between the wealthy and less fortunate of the city of Melbourne is juxtaposed 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] Hume uses descriptive text to describe 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 had gained notoriety as a place frequented by prostitutes and criminals.[16]

Publication history[edit]

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



The book was successful in sales with publishers; it sold 25,000 copies in its first print run in Australia and in its first two print runs in Australia the book sold 100,000 copies.[3][15] In its first six months after publication in Britain, 300,000 copies were sold.[2][14] 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".[6] Over 500,000 copies were sold in Britain, by the publishing company Jarrod.[15] An additional 500,000 copies sold in the United States.[5] 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 nineteenth century".[5]

The author did not benefit greatly from the sales of the work, as he had sold his rights to the book for GB£50.[15] A Gregarious Culture identifies "the only known 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]

A Companion to Crime Fiction (2010) by Charles J. Rzepka and Lee Horsley 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".[2] 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."[3] Geoffrey Blainey wrote in A History of Victoria that The Mystery of a Hansom Cab, "did more than any book to give the outside world a picture of Melbourne of the late 1880s".[4] 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."[5]


A parody edition was published in 1888 titled, The Mystery of a Wheelbarrow, with authorship attributed to a W. Humer Ferguson.[6][21] The same year, it was adapted for the stage by Arthur Law.[22]

The Mystery of a Hansom Cab was a 1911 film produced by Amalgamated Picture, an Australian adaptation of the book.[8][23]

In 1915, the book was again adapted into a film with a screenplay by Eliot Stannard.[7] Directed by Harold Weston, the film starred actors Milton Rosmer, Fay Temple, A.V. Bramble, James Dale, and Arthur Walcott.[7][24]

A remake of the 1911 version of the film was produced in 1925 in Australia.[8] The 1925 cast included Arthur Shirley, Grace Glover, Godfrey Cass, Cora Warner, and Isa Crossley.[8]

There was a 1936 film version.[25]

A six-part serial adaptation was broadcast on the BBC Light Programme from 2 November to 7 December 1958.[9]

Melbourne television station GTV-9 produced a version of the play in 1962, adapted by Barry Pree.[26]

The story was adapted into a play for the theatre in 1990 by Michael Rodger and a radio promotion in 1991 by Queensland Performing Arts Trust.[10][11]

A telemovie was made by Burberry Entertainment in association with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in 2012.[27][28] The production premiered on 28 October and stars John Waters, Oliver Ackland, Helen Morse and Jessica De Gouw.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Birns, Nicholas; Rebecca McNeer (2007). A Companion to Australian Literature since 1900. Camden House. pp. 391–393. ISBN 1-57113-349-6. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Rzepka, Charles J.; Lee Horsley (2010). A Companion to Crime Fiction. Wiley-Blackwell. pp. 107–109. ISBN 1-4051-6765-3. 
  3. ^ a b c d Lyons, Martyn; John Arnold (2001). A History of the Book in Australia 1891–1945: A National Culture in a Colonised Market. University of Queensland Press. pp. 241–243. ISBN 0-7022-3234-3. 
  4. ^ a b Blainey, Geoffrey (2007). A History of Victoria. Cambridge University Press. p. 72. ISBN 0-521-86977-3. 
  5. ^ a b c d e f Davies, David Stuart (2006). Vintage Mystery and Detective Stories. Wordsworth Editions Ltd. pp. 15–17, 1059, 1063. ISBN 1-84022-065-1. 
  6. ^ a b c d Jill Roe; Margaret Bettison (2001). A Gregarious Culture: Topical Writings of Miles Franklin. University of Queensland Press. pp. 227–230. ISBN 0-7022-3237-8. 
  7. ^ a b c Young, R. G. (2010). The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Film. Applause Books. p. 434. ISBN 1-55783-269-2. 
  8. ^ a b c d Reade, Eric (1979). History and Heartburn: The Saga of Australian Film, 1896–1978. Harper & Row. p. 44. ISBN 0-8386-3082-0. 
  9. ^ a b Radio Times. 1958.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  10. ^ a b OCLC 224191521
  11. ^ a b OCLC 224185898
  12. ^ Australian Broadcasting Commission
  13. ^ a b Macintyre, Stuart (2009). A Concise History of Australia. Cambridge University Press. pp. 111–113. ISBN 0-521-51608-0. 
  14. ^ a b c d Parrinder, Patrick; Andrzej Gasiorek (2011). The Oxford History of the Novel in English: Volume 4: The Reinvention of the British and Irish Novel 1880–1940. Oxford University Press, USA. pp. 213–216. ISBN 0-19-955933-3. 
  15. ^ a b c d e Pierce, Peter (2009). The Cambridge History of Australian Literature. Cambridge University Press. pp. 114, 274. ISBN 978-0-521-88165-4. 
  16. ^ Brown-May, Andrew (1998). Melbourne street life: the itinerary of our days. Australian Scholarly/Arcadia and Museum Victoria. p. 28. ISBN 978-1-875606-46-7. 
  17. ^ . LCCN ca08000675.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  18. ^ . LCCN 75032754.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  19. ^ . LCCN 82009461.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  20. ^
  21. ^ OCLC 221666246
  22. ^ Plarr, Victor (1899). "Law, William Arthur". Men and Women of the Time: A Dictionary of Contemporaries (15th ed.). G. Routledge. p. 626. OCLC 457880067. 
  23. ^ Mystery of a Hansom Cab at AllMovie
  24. ^ "PICTURE PROFILES IN THE OLDEN DAYS.". Winner (Melbourne, Vic. : 1914 - 1917) (Melbourne, Vic.: National Library of Australia). 9 February 1916. p. 11. Retrieved 19 June 2015. 
  25. ^
  26. ^
  27. ^ "Premiere – Mystery of a Hansom Cab". ABC. Retrieved 2012-10-26. 
  28. ^ "The Mystery of a Hansom Cab". Museum Victoria. Retrieved 2012-10-26. 

Further reading[edit]

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