Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Two Nineteenth Century Novels

After the twenty-first century, time to go back and revisit the nineteenth century.


Cover image of the first edition @ Wikipedia

The Mystery of a Hansom Cab is the first novel of English writer, Fergus Hume. Set in the city of Melbourne, the mystery involves the murder of a man in a hansom cab. One night, a hansom cab is hailed by a gentleman in a white suit who bundles his intoxicated companion in the cab and walks off... only to return in a few minutes, asking the driver to drive to a particular street. Before the cab reaches its destination, the man gets out, pays the driver his fare and asks him to take the drunken man to his address. The driver does so, only when he reaches the destination, he finds that his passenger is dead.

More than the mystery, which I found to be a bit of a drag, I enjoyed the description of Melbourne in the late 19th century. At one point, conversation between the characters indicate that the czar of Russia was keen on conquering Australia. Such an interesting nugget of information since I had no idea that czarist aspirations travelled so far southwards.

The Wikipedia tells me that Hume's novel, published in the same year as the hardly-noticed Conan Doyle's A Study in Scarlett ,was a resounding success, becoming the most commercially successful detective novel in the 19th and early 20th century. Success sure is ephemeral, how little is Hume known today vis-a-vis Conan Doyle!

SHE (1887)

There was a time when Africa was the continent of mystery. As European explorers and exploiters ventured further into the continent, the fascination grew. Rider Haggard's She is very much then a product of its time. Subtitled A History of Adventure, it is about the time when colonised (or soon to be colonised) lands provided an exotic backdrop to the passions, bravery, and romances of the White man. She is about three English men who encounter a mysterious and most bewitching woman in the ruins of a great civilization.

The book is enchanting in its way but I also realised how much the world has changed since the time it was first serialized in the The Graphic magazine. There is a thrilling, nail-biting description of a fight between a lion and a crocodile in the African jungles, a scene which we now see on channels like National Geographic or Discovery. Also pages are devoted to transcript in Greece and then the same transcript is written down in cursive hand. And this after the English 'translation' has been provided. More than anything else in the story, this told me how much we have traversed since the time of the publication of the book. I am sure that when this book was written, many amongst the English readers must have been able to read the Greek 'original'. A most humbling thought.


Opening Lines: The following report appeared in the Argus newspaper of Saturday, the 28th July, 18—

"Truth is said to be stranger than fiction, and certainly the extraordinary murder which took place in Melbourne on Thursday night, or rather Friday morning, goes a long way towards verifying this saying. A crime has been committed by an unknown assassin, within a short distance of the principal streets of this great city, and is surrounded by an impenetrable mystery. Indeed, from the nature of the crime itself, the place where it was committed, and the fact that the assassin has escaped without leaving a trace behind him, it would seem as though the case itself had been taken bodily from one of Gaboreau's novels, and that his famous detective Lecoq alone would be able to unravel it....

Title: The Mystery of the Hansom Cab
Author: Fergus Hume
Publication Details: e-text
First Published: 1886
Pages: n.pag.
Source: Project Gutenberg
Other books read of the same author: None


Opening Lines: In giving to the world the record of what, looked at as an adventure only, is I suppose one of the most wonderful and mysterious experiences ever undergone by mortal men, I feel it incumbent on me to explain what my exact connection with it is. And so I may as well say at once that I am not the narrator but only the editor of this extraordinary history, and then go on to tell how it found its way into my hands.

Title: She: A History of Adventure
Author: H.Rider Haggard
Publication Details: London and Glasgow: Collins, 1957
First Published: 1887
Pages: 320
Source: OTS since 2004
Other books read of the same author: None


Wishing you all a Merry X'Mas. Things just now are simply not right in my part of the world. If the killing of innocent school children in Peshawar was not enough, more than 70 people have been massacred by suspected militants in the North-Eastern Indian state of Assam. This Christmas I pray for peace and brotherhood.


  1. Those both sound like fascinating books, Neeru! As you say, the world has changed vastly since then, but it's so interesting to get a sense of what things were like in another time. And I couldn't agree with you more about the need for peace and brotherhood, now more than ever! If you celebrate Christmas, I hope you had a lovely time. May 2015 be a great year for you..

    1. We had a lovely Christmas, Margot. Thank you.

      Our plan was to pray at the Cathedral of Sacred Heart but seeing the serpentine queues, we beat a hasty retreat and went to The Church of St. Thomas. My little one was disappointed at not finding Santa over there. A Santa had already won his heart by offering him ice-cream. :)

      May you have a great 2015 too.

  2. Just calling by to say I hope you have a really good 2015. It is such a shame that parts of the world are in conflict about religion, when the one thing it should bring is peace. Maybe at the end of the day religion can only bring personal peace.

    All the best


    1. Rob, you are so right. I do not know why people fight over religion which should be a matter of personal choice. No religion in the world demands the kind of bloodshed and horrific killings that so called adherents of that religion restore to.

      I hope you have a wonderful 2015 too.