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‘The Most Popular Book of Modern Times’: Fergus Hume’s The Mystery of a Hansom Cab (1886)

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Abstract

This chapter focuses on the book that has been called ‘the bestselling detective novel of the nineteenth century’ — a novel, like the others in this study, which also illustrates the often overlooked formal and ideological complexity of the nascent Victorian detective genre (Davies, Shadows 16).1 Perhaps surprisingly, the bestselling detective novel of the nineteenth century is not by Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins or Arthur Conan Doyle. Rather, the first crime novel to sell over half a million copies was New Zealand lawyer Fergus (Ferguson Wright) Hume’s literary debut — The Mystery of a Hansom Cab (1886), a murder mystery set in Melbourne, that’s now all but dropped out of the crime fiction canon. In the year before the publication of the novel often taken to be the first significant work of late Victorian detective fiction — Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet (1887) — Hume’s novel was published in Australia and sold more than 25,000 copies in just three months. Before the turn of the century, The Mystery of a Hansom Cab had become a global hit: it had been republished in the UK, France and America; it had been turned into a successful stage play in London, Melbourne and New York (running for over 500 performances in London). Bizarrely, it had even inspired a copycat murder in Manchester in 1889.2

Keywords

  • Nineteenth Century
  • Police Force
  • Bare Bosom
  • Organise Corruption
  • Local Reader

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  • DOI: 10.1057/9780230390546_3
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© 2014 Clare Clarke

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Clarke, C. (2014). ‘The Most Popular Book of Modern Times’: Fergus Hume’s The Mystery of a Hansom Cab (1886). In: Late Victorian Crime Fiction in the Shadows of Sherlock. Crime Files Series. Palgrave Macmillan, London. https://doi.org/10.1057/9780230390546_3

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