Friday, 3 August 2012

Fergus Hume's The mystery of a hansom cab

Six of us gathered to discuss this 19th century Australian detective novel and unanimously enjoyed it. It was surprising to some of us that we had not read it before as we found it such a good read with quite a modern tone in some ways. It was mentioned that this had been the best selling detective novel of Victorian times, outselling even Conan Doyle.

A striking feature of the book is the lively evocation of Melbourne of the 1880s, where the author lived for some years. It details the landmarks, streetscapes, society both high and low, and particularly the low-life of Little Bourke Street full of vivid characters showing more than a nod to Dickens. We loved the many references to the culture of the times, for example the responses to the piano pieces being played by the young ladies, the books they are reading and what is on at the opera. There were many quotes from literature, and we thought the author was enjoying showing off with this literary name dropping. We enjoyed the book's sly humour, for example the character Felix and his new wife who is determined that she will get him into parliament, and references to the English attempting to adapt to the Australian climate.

It was mentioned that the author had set out to write a popular novel, modelling the book on those of Émile Gaboriau who was very popular at the time. We felt that is was much more than just a formulaic novel though. As a crime novel or "whodunnit" we thought it was quite complex and interesting, the plot having many twists and turns with gradual revelation of more clues and an unexpected ending. We noted that there was no single detective taking us through the solution but competition between the detectives involved who each took us in a different direction, as well as Calton the "lawyer as detective". We felt that it succeeded well as a melodrama with tongue firmly in cheek, having plenty of fainting girls, Dantesque slums, noble self sacrifice, sinister dark nights and such. As "literature" we had to acknowledge some failings though, many characters being rather stereotypical, some "clunkiness" as well as some plot points being laboured.

We felt that it was the humour that gave the book a light and relatively modern tone, as well as the point of view which moved from character to character throughout the book. The attitudes of the author, while inevitably being very Victorian, seemed relatively modern and liberal for his times we thought. For example his heroine was much more feisty than those of Dickens, having a "steely determination" and the female characters were no mere victims. Another character goes to live with a "Chinaman" who treats her much better than her earlier lovers. This reminded us that Australia always has been a mixture of cultures. As well as English, Irish and Chinese there is also mention of "street arabs" in 1880s Melbourne. While the people of the slums are depicted as lesser people there is some acknowledgement that they are human and disadvantaged. We noted evidence of Victorian morality, for example many Biblical references. Another comment was on the importance and fragility of social position as revealed in this novel, where one dark secret can undo you, and the layers of society and the importance of knowing where you fit in, but how all the same there was a fluidity in the society of the new world of Melbourne.

A main theme of the novel is the role of Fate in human affairs; to what extent people (both men and women) are puppets of fate or master of their destinies. Chapter 30 "Nemesis" begins: "Men according to the old Greek "are the sport of the gods""

Finally we noted that in this pre-ANZAC society there is already a consciousness of being Australians as well as British, and we loved these predictions:

In spite of the dismal prognostications of Marcus Clarke regarding the future Australian, whom he describes as being "a tall, coarse, strong-jawed, greedy, pushing, talented man, excelling in swimming and horsemanship," it is more likely that he will be a cultured, indolent individual with an intense appreciation of the arts and sciences, and a dislike to hard work and utilitarian principles. Climatic influence should be taken into account with regard to the future Australian, and our posterity will no more resemble us than the luxurious Venetians resembled their hardy forefathers, who first started to build on those lonely sandy islands of the Adriatic.