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.