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A Guide to The 19th Century's Best Selling Crime Fiction Mystery: The Mystery of a Hansom Cab by Fergus Hume

Updated on March 10, 2014

Perhaps A Scene of "Morceau de Salon" Being Played?

This young Victorian woman might be playing  such songs those played in the drawing room of the novel's heroine?
This young Victorian woman might be playing such songs those played in the drawing room of the novel's heroine?

Background of the Novel and Novelist

Fergus Hume (1859-1932) was English by birth and educated in New Zealand. where he took to the legal profession. Shortly after being graduation and being admitted to the New Zealand, he relocated to Melbourne, Australia, the setting of the story.

He tried his hand at writing plays without much success and then embarked on writing his first novel, The Mystery of the Hansom Cab which was first published in Australia.The reception of the novel at first was cool and unfortunately for Hume he sold the copyright to his work to a London firm, The Hansom Cab Publishing Company in 1887 for which he received a mere £50. It went on to great success selling perhaps some in the range of 500,000 copies worldwide and was considered the most successful novel of its genre in the late Victorian era..

Hume was a prolific writer with 140 novels to his credit but only one other novel achieved any great success, Madame Midas (1888)

Site of the Hansom Cab Murder

This is the Burke and Wills Monument in Melbourne, Australia. Near the site of the fictional murder.
This is the Burke and Wills Monument in Melbourne, Australia. Near the site of the fictional murder. | Source

The Story Line

The story takes place mainly in Melbourne, Australia and its environs. Melbourne was in its adolescence, at the time having been incorporated as a town in 1842. Land speculation and the discovery of gold made it a boom town in the 1850's In 1852, the population of the melbourne doubled with the addition of 75,000 to the colony. The population was approximately 400,000 in 1857 and over 500,000 three years later.As the gold fields became depleted many from the rural areas flooded the city joining the ranks of the poor and unemployed. In contrast the the afflent ones who had arrived earlier and made their fortunes. In a climate such as this social unrest, crime, and violence increased dramatically. This was the backdrop or stage setting of the novel..

The crime that was committed early on in the novel can be simply stated as this. Early on a Friday morning, a drunken man was assisted by a gentleman who when he discovered the identity of the drunk wanted nothing further to do with him and left him to the care of a hansom cab driver who was vaguely told where the drunk lived. The gentleman supposedly returned and embarked with the drunk. Much to the surprise of the hansom driver when arrived at his destination. He found not two men in the cab, but only one and that one was the drunk and he was dead.


Clues to the Identity of the Missing Gentleman

The police detective involved in discovering the missing gentleman and apparent murderer were followed and an arrest was made.

To tell much more would deny the reader of a fine book whose cast of characters include the full spectrum of the Melbourne from the high society, rich, to the poor and ignorant (and sometimes violent elements of the city at that time.

The novel is an interesting read but to get its full effect, one has to do some research. The author, Mr. Hume introduces Australian slang, words not commonly in use today, references to political and social figures of the time, places in the Melbourne environs, Latin quotes, and Biblical references.What follows is a glossary of most of the obscure references which might be lost on the reader of today without taking the distracting nature of research to find them on his or her own.

Words, People, Places, and Quotes Mentioned in the Story


***A***

Ananias and Sapphira - (Acts of the Apostles Chapter 4) - a couple who were members of the early Christian Church who died suddenly after being accused of stealing from the common good.

aphorism - a general truth; a common saying

assiduity - giving persistent attention

Auld Lang Syne - poem by Robert Burns associated with New Year's Eve

avidity - the strength of an acid or base, it pH factor

***B***

bacchanalian - derived from the Roman god of wine, Bacchus; characterized by drunkenness and promiscuity

banshee - a fairy or spirit who could foretell death

beldame - (archaic English) - an old woman; especially applied to a mean or ulgy one

Brain fever - inflammation of the brain

Brock's Fireworks - a firm which manufactured fireworks in London. The business founded in the early 18th century.

Burke and Wells Monument - scene of the crime

***C***

calumniate - slander; make false and injurious statements

céad míle fáilte - (Celtic greeting) - "a hundred thousand welcomes'

Marcus Clarke - (1848-1881), Australian novelist best known for The Term of His Natural Life, a story about a young man transported to Australia for a crime he did not commit

cove - (Australian slang) - a person; :mate"; manager of a sheep station

***D***

dead-sea fruit - attractive to look at but with a nauseous taste

Demetrius (A Midsummer Night's Dream) - Demetrius thinks that Herminia should marry him even though she has no interest in him. His reasoning? He had a agreement with Herminia's father therefore it was all settled. . In the end she does marry him.

demi-monde - women kept as mistresses kept by wealthy men; generally thought of as being hedonistic and flagrant in their conduct

De mortis nil nisi bonum - (Latin) - "of the dead, say nothing but good"

Deus ex machina - (Latin) for :"God in a machine". In ancient literature, if a dratist wanted to have an unusual or contrived ending to a play, he would use a god arrive near the end of the play to resolve any issues to achieve the desired ending.

Doré - Gustav Doré (1832-1883) a sculptor, engraver, and illustrator. he worked primarily in wood engraving.

Dulce est desipere in loco - (Latin) "It is sweet to relax at the proper time.

***E***

English at Waterloo - site of English victory against Napoleon in 1815. The English which may have been defeated there by miscalculation by Napoleon

epergne - table centerpiece

epigramatic - fond of using terse or witty sayings

***F***

Fitzroy Gardens - A famous park in Melbourne named for the Governor of New South Wales. Originally started with 64 acres in 1848.

***G***

Goshen - a Hebrew word refering to place name in Egypt's Nile delta

Guttersnipe - a person of the lowest morals

***I***

Iolanthe - Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera. Strephon is a shepherd aiming for Parliament.

***K***

Ned Kelley (c. 1848-1880) considered by some a villian and by others as the Australian version of Robin Hood

***L***

lachrymose - easily give to shedding tears, a mournful nature

***M***

Macbeth witches - quote from the play in the novel. The witches were said to have beard which made it impossible to tell if they were women on men

masher (English slang) - a man who makes unwanted advances to women

mirabile dictu - (Latin) wonderful to tell

Morceau de Salon - "piece of living" , a type of ballad

Moubray, Rowan, & Hicks - a Melbourne retailer of finery from 1878-1892

***P***

pertinacious - stubborn or obstinate; holding to a course of action

piquant - pleasantly biting or tart

polyglot - multilingual; able to speak a number of languages

Praed's Vicar - reference to a poem The Vicar by Winthrop Praed

***Q***

Quixotic - foolishly impractical, resembling Cervantes' Don Quixote

***S***

Seven Dials, London - a hub in West London where seven roads converge. For a time it was notorious in that there was a pub on each of the corners where the roads converged.

Shadrak, Meshach, and Abednego - (from the Bible, Book of Daniel) - The men committed to God that they would not submit to the Babylonian king. The king had them thrown into a fiery furnace but they were not consumed by the flames.

Sidney Smith - (1764-1840) British admiral

sovereign - a gold coin, with a value of £1

sub tegmine fagi - (Latin) "beneath the canopy of the spreading beech (from Virgil, Roman poet)

^^^V***

videlicet - (Latin) "that is to say; or it follows; English abbreviation is viz.

***W***

wide-awake hat - a soft low-crowned felt hat

witch elm = (most often wych elm. a shade tree

The Author, Fergus Hume (1859-1932)

Photo taken circa 1882
Photo taken circa 1882 | Source

Even Rembrandt Wore a "Wide-Awake" Hat

Rembrandt in a self-portrait in a wide-awake hat.
Rembrandt in a self-portrait in a wide-awake hat.

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