‘Blockbuster: Fergus Hume and the Mystery of a Hansom Cab’ by Lucy Sussex

sussex

2015, 257 p. & notes,

Fergus Hume’s book The Mystery of a Hansom Cab (my earlier review here) has the dual ‘honour’ of being both the best selling detective novel of the nineteenth century and the ultimate one-hit-wonder in a career that generated over 130 novels and numerous stories and articles. Self-published in 1886, it became an instant best-seller both locally – and more importantly for an Australian book at the time- internationally.  Lucy Sussex’s book Blockbuster is a book about the book.  You don’t even have to have read The Mystery of a Hansom Cab because Sussex’s work is far more focussed on the author and his milieu, the commercial trajectory of the book and the provenance of the remaining copies, rather than the book itself.

As she points out in the introduction, Hansom Cab is a thoroughly Melbourne book, starting as it does at the thoroughly respectable corner of Russell and Collins Street outside Scots Church,  passing the thoroughly respectable streets of East Melbourne and meandering its way through the slums of Little Lonsdale Streets and shabby-genteel St Kilda.  Its author, however, was not Melbourne-born but was originally from Scotland, having emigrated to New Zealand as a child when his father took up a position as a master of a lunatic asylum, a job he had also undertaken in Scotland.  Despite a yearning for the stage – a yen that both his sisters were allowed to fulfil-  Fergus was channeled into the law by his father, until he ‘escaped’ with his sisters ‘across the ditch’ so that they could further their stage careers. Once in Melbourne and freed from paternal oversight, he tried to get his scripts accepted for theatrical performance but to no avail.  He wrote The Mystery of a Hansom Cab as a novelistic attempt to get noticed in order to further his theatrical career.  It was an unintentional best-seller that somehow failed to make him a rich man, or substantially boost his theatrical profile.

I was surprised to learn that The Mystery of a Hansom Cab is one of a trilogy of Melbourne novels (the others being Madam Midas, a Realistic and Sensational Story of Melbourne Mining Life [1888] and Miss Mephistopheles [1890]).  The retailing and licensing of the book is a tawdry tale, with Hume selling  the international copyright for only 50 pounds to promoters who certainly promoted it well and made their fortune from it.  In trying to work out the numbers of volumes actually sold, it is hard to tell what is puffery and what is fact. I found the information about the provenance of the remaining collection of editions held here in Australia fascinating.

Although Hume’s books reflect the milieu in which he circulated, there is not a large archive of personal correspondence or autobiographical writing for Sussex to draw on beyond his book When I Lived in Bohemia. She looks, therefore, for resonances of his personal life in his writing and speculates about his homosexuality from the lives of men around him.

Even though I read a lot, I am a stranger to the world of Literary Studies (with capital letters) and I found myself nonplussed at times at the wide-ranging and digressive nature of Sussex’s writing.  Sussex has written on the previously-undiscovered Australian writer Mary Fortune, and at times I found myself lost as she turned her attention to other writers and theatrical figures of the time before returning her focus to Hume.  The historical parts of the book follow the usual historical conventions of footnoting and referencing but when she interviews present-day writers, their commentary is woven into the narrative as a source that she assumes you’re familiar with. It’s almost as if the reader is overhearing a conversation among a group of people who all know what they’re talking about together, but from which the listener is rather excluded.  Certainly one can enjoy the book without having read Hansom Cab but I felt rather short-changed in the frequent references to the other two Melbourne books which I (among many many others I should imagine) have not read.

The book has a large number of short chapters, which usually I would find annoying, but in this case the short chapters maintained the forward chronological thrust of the narrative. However,  I did find the ending of the book untidy, with a postscript, followed by epitaphs of the minor characters and reviews and opinions of Hansom Cab over time. I wasn’t quite sure where the book ended.

That said, though, I did enjoy the book- a lot.  I suspect that my reservations are grounded in my unfamiliarity with Literary Studies, rather than the book itself.  It was awarded the History Publication Award in the 2015 Victorian Community History Awards.and as a historian, I very much enjoyed the way she captured the theatrical and intellectual climate of boomtime 1880s Melbourne and the economics of literary publication within the colonial book-trade.

aww2016 This review has been posted in the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2016

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