Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Mystery of a Hansom Cab

The Mystery of a Hansom Cab
Fergus Hume
published c.1889
3/5 stars

I was eager to read The Mystery of a Hansom Cab as it was supposedly one of the most popular (if not the most popular) mysteries of that century and is also, according to legend, what gave Doyle the interest in writing mysteries himself.

The actual mystery in The Mystery of a Hansom Cab is a good one: two gentleman get into a cab, one gets out and the other proceeds. When the cab stops for the second gentleman, the cab driver discovers that he is dead. There are no identifying papers or paraphernalia on the deceased and no one comes forward to identify him.

At first, like the detective in charge thinks, it seems a rather cut and dried case. Find the first gentleman and you have the murderer. The success of this novel though, hinges on the depth of the mystery. As the lawyer and detectives begin to peel away at it, they find layer after layer.

Unfortunately for the modern reader, the prose is just plain awful. This was Hume's first novel and it is stupefyingly boring at points as he goes into detail about his opinion of his fellow Australians, for instance, or makes one reference after another to contemporary mystery writers, or recounts everything the reader has just witnessed via a detailed newspaper account. Oh, and Hume's attempts at rendering lower class speech, with dropped letters and a plethora of apostrophes. .. dreadful, simply dreadful. I finally had to just start skimming over that and trust that any important information from these scenes would be recapped in another conversation later. A fourth of the book, of verbiage and descriptions and opinions that didn't contribute at all to the plot, could easily have been removed and it would have been a pretty good read.

If a modern reader is willing to take the time to wade through the chaff to get to the wheat, the mystery itself is a good one. Plus, from an historical point of view, this is a rather important novel in the solidifying of the mystery genre. It's tough going at times, though, so be forewarned.

~~Read for the Victorian Literature Challenge~~

Note: This is just my opinion; on Amazon, 41%  of the reviews were 5 stars.

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