Aussie Voices: Australia’s First Detective Novelist


This week, Aussie Voices looks at Fergus Hume, a Melbourne based writer who published Australia’s first detective novel, arguably the first of the great thrillers.

Hume was a clerk in Melbourne, and wrote plays, but could not get local producers to even look at them. As the Monsieur Lecoq novels, a series in which a reformed criminal aids the police, were popular at the time, Hume decided to write something similar. The Mystery of a Hansom Cab couldn’t find a local publisher either, so Hume self-published, and his book was, for a time, the best-selling work in English. Sadly for Hume, he’d sold the American and British rights for 5o pounds, and so didn’t make anything from, arguably, founding the thriller genre. He went back to England and lived out his life there, although some Australian themes can be seen in his later works.

Hansom Cab is an odd book, because it doesn’t really work with our modern ideas of what a detective novel should be. For example, the detective changes halfway through the book. Also, who actually did the killing is not considered quite so important as why. Finally, the conclusion seems radically unfair from a modern, democratic perspective, while being completely sound from the view of the contemporary middle class. This is interesting because it belies the idea that Australian society was in some sense classless at foundation.

A detailed, but spoiler filled, discussion of this book was recorded by ABC about eight years ago. A podcast and transcript are available from the Radio National Website. One of the interesting facts the researchers there reveal is that the novel spawned a copycat murderer.

Mystery of a hansom cab coverThe Gold Coast Library Service has The Mystery of a Hansom Cab in paperback. Librivox has eight of his novels available in free audio. I’d particularly recommend Madam Midas. The Librivox version of The Mystery of a Hansom Cab is read with a very strong American accent. You cease noticing it after a chapter or two, other than the occasional mispronounced place-name, so I’d encourage you not to be put off by it.

Next week we consider Australian Legendary Tales: Folk-Lore of the Noongahburrahs As Told To The Piccaninnies by K. Langloh Parker. We’ll look at the structure of the stories, and why they are so enduring, consider if they are the earliest forms of Australian literary culture,  and discuss the role of white people in the translation and transmission of Aboriginal oral culture into English text.  So, see you next Friday.