The Mystery of a Hansom Cab

October 6, 2009

Fergus Hume’s Mystery of a Hansom Cab was hugely popular in, like, 1887, but I’m not quite sure why. I mean, I didn’t figure out who the murderer was, sure, but I felt like Hume’s attempts at misdirection were more important to him than the integrity of the plot. Trying to figure out the solution isn’t a huge part of reading mystery novels, for me, but I like to at least have the option, and I think lying to the reader is the ultimate sin a mystery writer can commit.

Also, the crime wasn’t that exciting.

The book takes place in Melbourne, and the obvious local knowledge Hume brings to the book is one of the best things about it. Most of the main characters are originally English, including the murder victim, a Mr. Oliver Whyte. He gets into a cab one night, very  drunk and accompanied by a friend. The friend leaves the cab en route, and when the cabman tries to wake up Whyte to ask his address, he finds that Whyte has been poisoned with chloroform.

People keep making a huge deal out of this, acting as if it’s the most horrific crime ever committed in Australia. Maybe it’s because it isn’t 1887 anymore and I’m jaded, but poisoning someone with an overdose of something that knocks them out isn’t all that brutal, as murders go, and when you know everything about the commission of the crime except for the identity of the murderer, it’s not all that mysterious either.

The mystery turns on the fact that most of the men in the story wear light-colored coats over their evening dress and have blond moustaches. One of the young men, Brian Fitzgerald, admits to picking Whyte up off the street, hailing the cab, and leaving, but insists that it was someone else who got into the cab with Whyte and, obviously, poisoned him. Fitzgerald is arrested, because although he has a perfectly good alibi, he refuses to tell anyone what it is, although we soon find out that it involves some secret that would hurt his fiancée, Madge Frettlby.

There’s a lot of predictable stuff about secret marriages and illegitimate children, along with a few real surprises and a lot of borderline dishonest narration. The bit that made me really angry — and there’s a spoiler coming up here, if anyone cares — is when Madge’s father, Mark Frettlby, hears the name ‘Rosanna Moore’ and is visibly startled. Brian Fitzgerald wonders to himself why hearing that name should disturb Mr. Frettlby, even though he must already know that Mr. Frettlby and Rosanna Moore were secretly married before Frettlby married Madge’s mother. Is this as big a deal as I’m making it out to be? I can’t really tell if I’m overreacting or not. One thing I do know: ‘Frettlby’ is a really entertaining name.

Next up: The Middle Temple Murder, a bestseller from 1912 that I really liked.


  1. Oh, I hate when mystery authors don’t play fair–this sounds like a definite case.

  2. It’s kind of the ultimate sin in a mystery novelist, isn’t it? Especially when you consider how much a writer can hide without actively deceiving the reader.

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