“Far and away the single most popular crime ‘yellow-back’ was The Mystery of a Hansom Cab, a novel originally published in Melbourne, Au

Far and away the single most popular crime ‘yellow-back’ was The Mystery of a Hansom Cab, a novel originally published in Melbourne, Australia, by the author, Fergus Hume (1859-1932), at his own expense. There is, in fact, probably no more unlikely success story in the history of crime fiction publishing than this tale of a brutal crime in which the identity of the killer is actually given away in the preface! Hume had been born in England, but emigrated with his family to New Zealand and then moved to Australia to practise as a lawyer. In an attempt to augment his income, he asked a local bookseller what kind of book sold best. Hume wrote later, ‘He replied that the detective sales of Emile Gaboriau had a large sale; and as, at this time, I had never heard of this author, I bought all his works and determined to write a book of the same class containing a mystery, a murder, and a description of the low life of Melbourne.’”

“Unable to find a publisher for The Mystery of a Hansom Cab, Hume decided to publish the book himself and just about covered his costs on the first printing. One purchaser of the book, however, was an Englishman who evidently had an eye for a commercial prospect. He promptly bought the rights from the author, set up the Hansom Cab Publishing Company in London, and launched the book onto the nation’s railway bookstalls. With its simple yellow cover and an illustration of a hansom cab, it rapidly sold 350,000 copies, a figure which was doubled when the story was reprinted in America. By the end of the century, The Mystery of a Hansom Cab had been translated into 12 foriegn languages.”

“Hume, who was still in Australia while all this was happening, scraped together enough money for a fare to England and arrived in London to find his name on everyone’s lips. It should have made him wealthy, but having sold the copyright he was not entitled to a penny. Disappointed but not downhearted, Hume settled in Essex and in the years that followed tried desperately to repeat his success, writing over 100 more crime novels — including Madame Midas (1888), For the Defense (1898) and the optomistically entitled The Mystery of a Motor Cab (1908) — but none achieved anything like the popularity of the first book. Today, in most histories of crime fiction, Hume is dismissed as a hack whose books are unreadable and whose most famous story was ‘tedious from start to finish’. Yet it outsold the works of Poe, Collins and even Conan Doyle for years, and more copies were bought in its ‘yellow-back’ format than any other title. Furthermore, the original Melbourne edition has the distinction today of being one of the rarest books in the world – only two copies are known to exist.

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: I lifted this out of The Classic Era of Crime Fiction by Peter Haining, published by the good folks at Chicago Review Press. It’s a large hardback book with heaps of pictures of book covers and goes through to about 1960. Very nice.

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