‘£100 POUNDS REWARD – MURDER!’ What do you think of this for an opening line of a crime novel?
The opening line is from The Mystery of the Hansom Cab written by Fergus Hume.
Most writers know a great first line in any work has the power to entice the reader to read on. I think Fergus Hume achieved this in his novel, The Mystery of the Hansom Cab. (1886). I read an interesting article recently in the State Library (The Mitchell Library) magazine dated Winter 2015. The article was titled, Catching a Cab written by Rachel Franks. I found the article interesting not only because Franks introduced me to an Australian crime novel and author I was unfamiliar with, but because I found the story behind the man intriguing. Fergus Hume, like many before him and since, was seeking recognition for his first novel. He is quoted to have said after he had completed his first novel, ‘I tried to get it (The Mystery of the Hansom Cab) published but everyone to whom I offered it refused even to look at the manuscript on the ground that no Colonial could write anything worth reading.’
Rejection didn’t deter Fergus Hume. He set about the task of self-publishing and in 1886, the printers Kemp and Boyce produced 5,000 copies of his book. Hume claimed he sold all copies within 3 weeks.
The Mystery of the Hansom Cab was the biggest selling detective novel of the nineteenth century with more than 500,000 copies sold. But that wasn’t all, according to Dr Lucy Sussex, an authority on Australian colonial crime fiction:
‘The book helped define the new publishing genre of detective fiction, alerting publishers to a new, and huge popular market-although the real beneficiary, it might be argued, was not Hume but Conan Doyle, whose first Sherlock Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet, was not published until after The Mystery of a Hansom Cab.
If you have a spare forty minutes you might like to sit down, put your feet up with a cup of tea or coffee and listen to this podcast recorded by the ABC in 2009.
Unfortunately, Hume didn’t profit from this triumph. He sold the rights of his book for £50, (now there’s a lesson.) Hume produced 140 novels and short story collections. Unfortunately, they never matched the success of The Mystery of the Hansom Cab.