Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Block Buster: Fergus Hume & the Mystery of the Hansom Cab by Lucy Sussex, Text Publishing

Before there was Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, there was Fergus Hume’s The Mystery of a Hansom Cab—the biggest, and fastest-selling, detective novel of the 1800s, and Australia’s first literary blockbuster.
Fergus Hume was an aspiring playwright when he moved from Dunedin to Melbourne in 1885. He wrote The Mystery of a Hansom Cab with the humble hope of bringing his name to the attention of theatre managers. The book sold out its first run almost instantly and it became a runaway word-of-mouth phenomenon—but its author sold the copyright for a mere fifty pounds, missing out on a potential fortune.
Blockbuster! is the engrossing story of a book that would help define the genre of crime fiction, and a portrait of a great city in full bloom. Rigorously researched and full of arresting detail, this captivating book is a must-read for all fans of true crime, history and crime fiction alike.

As well as touching on Hume’s own story, Sussex’s meticulous research examines lives, fortunes and ultimate fates of those involved in the writing, publication and marketing of Hanson Cab: readers, reviewers, investors, supporters and publishers, to name a few. The impersonations, scams and fraud that resulted from this publishing phenomenon are unbelievable.  A real Victorian scam to boot! And each chapter is an entre to the next scam with a relevant quote from one of Hume’s later works, showing how incidents in his life became inspiration for these elaborate tales.

And to give us a timeline flavour selection of reviews of the Hansom Cab, four pages of relevant colour plates, an extensive bibliography and comprehensive end-notes and index. She discusses the likely fate and provenance of the few remaining (and very valuable) copies of early editions. This is a book that will appeal to readers who like to get behind the story.

Sussex tells us just how important this book was: “Above all," he says, "the work consolidated detective fiction as a publishing genre, one with a mass readership of avid fans……others had shown that the market existed for tales of crime, but it took the blockbusting success of Hanson Cab, achieved by Trischler’s brilliant marketing, to prove how lucrative crime fiction crime fiction could be. Publishers took note and, over a century later, detective fiction is still a marker leader”. A very, very interesting read.

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