August 2016 | Rebecca Rego Barry

Summer Reading: Australia's First Blockbuster!

Blockbuster.jpgFor fans of detective fiction, Antipodean literature, book history, nineteenth-century theater, or all of the above, Lucy Sussex's new book, Blockbuster!: Fergus Hume & The Mystery of a Hansom Cab (Text Publishing, $16.95), is an exemplar of cogent scholarship, engagingly presented. Sussex weaves together the biography of aspiring playwright Fergus Hume (1859-1932), with the publishing history of the bestselling detective novel of the 1800s, and her own quest to discover how and why Hume fell into obscurity.

The Mystery of a Hansom Cab (1886) is, surely, less known to modern readers than its competition in the same burgeoning crime fiction genre, Arthur Conan Doyle's A Study in Scarlet (1887). But Hansom Cab was by far more popular with Victorians, selling out its first printing (probably 5,000) within days. Reprints and theater adaptations followed. And while Hume did not get rich (he sold his copyright), he did move to London to enjoy the literary life.

Sussex delves into the various aspects of this novel's sometimes murky history, from its composition and numerous rejections to its eventual publication, marketing, and sales. She considers the people involved, from the author to his collaborators and financiers to the first readers (and later, the collectors*). And she convincingly argues that this "cheap, Victorian paperback," set in Melbourne and afflicted by "cultural cringe," was a global phenomenon. In doing so, she revives the book and Hume--not by placing it on a pedestal, but by restoring it to our literary and cultural frame of reference.     

Having not read the mystery at the center of Sussex's study, nor indeed any of Hume's total 140 novels, is no impediment to the thorough enjoyment of this book. But, for those of you who are intrigued, a new edition of Hansom Cab is also available.  

*Now about those collectors: "The first Melbourne edition of Hume's book is an ultimate collectable for detective-fiction buffs," Sussex writes. Indeed only four copies of that first printing survive, and in one delicious chapter we hear about a lucky scout who uncovered one in a box lot of books from a local auction house a decade ago. Sussex goes on to discuss a later Hume novel, Professor Brankel's Secret, which features an obsessive bibliomaniac, as well as her own experiences attending the 2012 ANZAAB antiquarian book fair.