The Big Issue : Edition 490
THEBIGISSUE7–13AUG2015 31 Sussex paints an intriguing picture of the impact this had on Hume, who grew up in the asylum. But it was no Bedlam. In fact, the notion of ‘moral management’, then in vogue, held that mental illness was temporary, and encouraged a sympathetic approach. As Sussex writes, “Work as occupational therapy was adopted, along with entertaining diversions in the form of music, dance and theatre”. So, from a young age, Hume developed both a sympathy for the disenfranchised and, through his involvement in the asylum theatrics, an interest in the theatre. While he went on to study law to please his father, Hume soon began to focus more on his ambitions as a poet and playwright. It was the latter that ultimately led him to Melbourne. Unable to crack the local theatrical establishment, Hume decided to make his name with a book – studying the proto crime books of the time: French- inspired mysteries and ‘sensation novels’, with bigamy subplots. But his book would have more literary merit and it would capture the still beating heart of what was then ‘Marvellous Melbourne’. “He was walking around the streets of Melbourne, familiarising himself with it, to write the book,” Sussex says. “And so he went into the slums and he saw what was going on and he saw the opium dens. And he couldn’t not notice that we had a fabulously rich city, [but also one] where you could go from the Houses of Parliament to the slums within a few blocks.” The only thing was, at first, no publisher would touch it. The plot – in which a man is murdered in the eponymous hansom cab (the taxi of its day) – included references to prostitution, the criminal underworld and even interracial marriage. Ultimately, Hume’s manuscript came to the attention of an aspiring publisher, Frederick Trischler – who, with what seemed like unrealistic ambitions for the book and its unknown author, partnered with Hume to fund its publication. On the strength of sensational sales in the colonies, Hume sold the international rights for just fifty pounds to an English publisher. This meant that when the book became a global blockbuster, Hume saw none of the cash. But Hume would still have a prolific literary career – writing 140 books (of variable quality). Yet the legacy of his most famous book is considerable. Hansom Cab’s impact on the crime genre and Australian publishing is not to be underestimated. “Certainly Conan Doyle would not have kept on with Sherlock Holmes,” she says. “Hansom Cab came out in England just before the first Sherlock Holmes story, which was published in a magazine. Conan Doyle had intended it as a one-off. Hume intended Hansom Cab to be a one-off, just to establish him as a playwright.’’ And Hume himself? Sussex devotes a long and warm epitaph to the author, who died in Essex, England in 1932, aged 73. “Fergus Hume may not have died rich in worldly goods,” writes Sussex, “but he had the goodwill – even the word love was used – of his community...who followed his coffin to the graveyard.” by Melissa Cranenburgh » Blockbuster! Fergus Hume and the Mystery of a Hansom Cab is out now. IN APRIL 2012 Melbourne-based publisher Text reissued a collection of vintage Australian literature that had fallen out of print. Among these neglected books was a murder mystery. When first published, in 1886, it had the reach of Steig Larsson’s best-selling The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and the self-publishing backstory of Fifty Shades of Grey. At the height of its success, it sold 500,000 copies world-wide – a staggering sum for the day and impressive even now. Yet its author spent his final years in genteel poverty. The book was The Mystery of a Hansom Cab; its author, Fergus Hume. Now, dusted off and reinvigorated by new readers, Hume himself has become a subject of interest and the central figure in another book: Blockbuster! Fergus Hume and the Mystery of a Hansom Cab, by Melbourne-based author Lucy Sussex. Sussex first became aware of Hansom Cab many years ago, when she was working as a research assistant for literary academic Stephen Knight, who was writing about the history of Australian crime fiction. She recalls: “I had this beautiful job in which I sat in the State Library and just read books and then told him if they were any good or not. And one of the books I did read was Hansom Cab.” Sussex went on to resurrect the books of other 19th century crime authors, including Mary Fortune and Ellen Davitt. But it would be another two decades before she would return to Hume. Like Sussex, who was born in 1950s Christchurch, Hume had a connection to New Zealand. Migrating there from England with his family when aged three, he spent his formative years in Dunedin. His father, a hard-working Presbyterian Scot, established himself in the upwardly mobile classes as superintendent of Dunedin’s Lunatic Asylum. His mother was the asylum matron and perhaps also an inspiration for her career-driven daughters, who would go on to have some, albeit minor, success as opera singers. A HANSOM MYSTERY LITERARY SLEUTH LUCY SUSSEX HAS CRACKED THE CASE OF THE MAN BEHIND AN EXTRAORDINARY 19TH CENTURY PUBLISHING SUCCESS STORY.