A Book Review – The Mystery of a Hansom Cab

Book Review by Pam Jeanetta Bird-Gaines

There may be little interest locally in people from the past, but if such connections are celebrated internationally by many admirers, there must be a reason? Fergus Hume was born in England, emigrated with his family to New Zealand, studied, moved to Melbourne, Australia, and there wrote an international bestseller. He then moved back to England and spent the rest of his life writing some 140 books, mostly in Thundersley. Pam Jeanetta Bird-Gaines is one of the interested followers and tongue-in-cheek I had asked her to write a review of Hume’s most famous mystery. She’s done us proud. Thank you, Pam.

FERGUS HUME – The Mystery of A Hansom Cab

Robert Hallmann asked me to review this book for Hadleigh & Thundersley Community Archive – although there are many a lot better qualified than I for this task. I was really out of my comfort zone, because crime mystery is not a genre that has ever really appealed to me – historical dramas and biographies being more the type of book I read. I had bought the book out of curiosity, knowing that the illustrious and prolific author lay at rest in our local churchyard of St. Peters.

However, I was pleasantly surprised. I found it a gripping read, once I had become accustomed to Mr. Hume’s way of directly rendering the speech of 19th century Melbourne low life – which seemed laboured at first – all dropped aitches and apostrophes. It was interesting to note that some of the colloquialisms have found their way into the 20th century, – I remember my Father (born in 1921) saying, ‘what’s all this thusness’, and my Mother referring to someone as a ‘guttersnipe’. A paragraph in Chapter XXl made me smile, in the light of fashions today. The narrator bemoans the heat, and the English habit of keeping Christmas in the old fashion … ‘with the sun one hundred odd in the shade, Australian revellers sit down to the roast beef and plum pudding of Old England’, and he heartily wishes that, ‘some ingenious mortal would only invent some light and airy costume’.

To say the plot is convoluted is an understatement. I thought I had deduced ‘whodunnit’ half way through the book, but I was wrong. Without giving anything away, I will say that I was in the right area, but not exactly the right relationship.

One can tell that Mr. Hume was a barrister, by his deft handling of the legal questioning in the court scenes. The book obviously reflects the social mores of the time in which it was written. Mr. Hume paints a graphic picture of class difference, and what a world away was the life of the gentry from that of the low life of Little Bourke Street. To me – as an amateur poet and social historian – the little pen portraits of the characters of varying social class and domestic situations are the most fascinating aspect of the book.

After the mystery has been solved, the summing up by the main characters is a little disturbing to a modern reader. The gentlemen decide not to disturb the status quo in this delicate denouement, and actually do not tell the two women concerned the truth of the matter.

All in all – the book is a lovely cameo of a time and a place, (19th century Melbourne, Australia) and a rattling good read. Agatha Christie could never keep my attention, but Fergus Hume certainly did, and I will be happy to read another.

Pam Jeanetta Bird-Gaines

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