Fergus Hume’s mediocre but nevertheless inspiring first novel

February 20, 2021 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, fiction, writers, writing.

Caroline Crampton, writer, producer, and narrator of the Shedunnit podcast, which is a must-hear for mystery and detective fiction fans, has produced an interesting new episode that raises the always intriguing question, “What was the first mystery/detective story?”

You may think you know the answer – mine was Ed

gar Allan Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue – and your answer, like mine, is certainly a possibility, but there are many other possibilities that she delves into.

One of the authors whom she mentions is Fergus Hume, who was born in England in 1859 but in the late 1880s found himself in Melbourne, Australia, as a member of the bar. Hume did not particularly want to be a lawyer. He wanted to be a writer. Hume wanted to write something that a lot of people would read, but he didn’t know exactly what that was.

He consulted with a bookseller and was told that the novels of Émile Gaboriau, which were mystery and detective stories, were flying off the shelves. Hume decided he could write something like that himself, and he produced a novel titled The Mystery of the Hansom Cab. His problem then was that no publisher was interested. So, he did but many authors before and since have done: he published it himself. This was in 1886.

The novel turned out to be wildly popular, and before too long it was estimated that just about every reading adult in Melbourne had read it. It was also popular in America and Great Britain, but Hume had made the mistake of selling the British and American rights to the book for only about 50 pounds. Although Hume was highly prolific during the rest of his writing life – he wrote five plays and about 130 novels — The Mystery of the Hansom Cab was by far his most popular book.

Not only did the book not make him money, but it was also not very good. One of the people in Great Britain who read the book was that young medical student named Arthur Conan Doyle, who believed that he could write something much better. In 1887, a year after Hume’s book appeared, the first installments of A Study in Scarlet were published, and Sherlock Holmes was introduced to the literary world.

 

 

 

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