Saturday, July 11, 2015

Blockbuster! Fergus Hume and the Mystery of a Hansom Cab



This new book by acclaimed writer/researcher, Lucy Sussex, will be of interest to Wormwoodians.  Blockbuster! is the biography of a book - Fergus Hume's crime novel, The Mystery of a Hansom Cab, an instant bestseller when it was published in 1886.  And a fascinating history it is too - from Hume's childhood in Dunedin, New Zealand, where his father managed the lunatic asylum, to his move to Melbourne and the writing of Hansom Cab following unsuccessful attempts to break into the Melbourne theatre scene, to the extraordinary success of the novel resulting from Frederick Trischler's ultramodern marketing campaign, and then on to London and mixed success as a prolific novelist.

There is a lot of new material in this book, including the record of Hume's famous selling of the copyright of Hansom Cab for ₤50 found in the copyright registers at the National Archives of Australia.  There are excellent chapters on the publisher, Frederick Trischler, and on the ongoing life of early editions of the novel in the rare book market - only four copies of the first edition are known to exist, and only one copy of the third edition.  

Hume becomes a ghostly, insubstantial figure after he settles down in Thundersley in Essex to write books - but writing 140 books probably didn't leave much time for anything else.  He was a lifelong bachelor and there are hints of homosexuality in his work, which were stated explicitly in an article on him by rare book dealer Jeremy Parrott in the late, lamented Book & Magazine Collector, drawing off the recollections of a distant relative.  It would also be interesting to trace his involvement in occult circles - he had a genuine interest in theosophy and mysticism, reflected in various novels and short stories, as did other literary antipodean expats of the time - Rosa Praed, H.B. Marriott Watson, and Reginald Hodder. 

This is a fine book about a novel that defined the burgeoning  genre of crime fiction, full of wit, important discoveries and fascinating insights - like its subject, a real page-turner.

12 comments:

  1. I may be confusing Hume with someone else, but I'm pretty sure that in one of bookseller Fred Bason's series of memoirs he mentions meeting an old man in dreadful poverty and being shocked to find it was Fergus Hume, author of this phenomenally successful book.

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  2. Yes, that's Fred Bason's Diary - says Fergus was down to his last 2p. That's scraping the bottom if the barrel.

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  3. Bason reported the encounter as happening in Islington. Hume died in a bungalow in rural Thundersley, Essex. Either the account is garbled as to place, or the man encountered was one of the Hume impersonators active before the young literary lion actually arrived in England from the Antipodes.

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  4. Is this book available only in digital format? I tend to use Book Depository for all my new book buying these days, but it's "out of stock". At the Text Publishing website it says there's a paperback edition. Can I only order from there?

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  5. John, yes it is available as a paperback, though I'm not sure how it's distributed in the UK. Might be worth emailing the publisher.

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  6. Yes, available as e-book via the Text site

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  7. Any plans for UK publication?

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  8. US publication next June, not sure about UK pub. It is hard to get colonial books into the UK market---the Hansom Cab itself excepted

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    1. Thanks for the information.

      One question - is the recent Text edition of "Cab" a reprint of the original book, or is it a reprint of the 1896 revised edition?

      Stuart Radmore

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  9. Text went back to the original 1886 edition

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    1. Regarding Fred Bason's account of the end of Fergus Hume, I own the manuscript of a radio talk he gave in 1958 in which he gives a much longer version of this than in his diary. It's actually his account of what a newspaper reporter told him about meeting Hume. It's interesting, but yes, it does state he was in Islington. I'll be publishing a transcript of it in the next issue of my zine 'Biblio-Curiosa', out around December/January.

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    2. I'd love to see it

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