Source: Review Copy (Harper Collins)
Hume, is another of those authors I’ve been meaning to try, but never gotten round to. I’ve always planned to get around to reading The Mystery of the Hansom Cab, his most famous book. Yet it seems my first encounter with him won’t be that one. But that may have been a good thing, as in the introduction to this story, it is helpfully pointed out that the original preface for The Mystery of the Hansom Cab, gives away the identity of the killer. Thankfully there is no such issue in today’s read, which starts by introducing us to an unusual tramp called Cicero Gramp:
‘Apparently he had but recently joined the cadging profession, for about him there lingered an air of respectability and the marks of a prosperity not wholly decayed […] as a begging friar of mediaeval times he would have been altogether admirable; as a modern tramp he was out of picture.’
We witness his failed attempt to cadge a bed for the night at a hostelry, yet he doesn’t go away empty handed, having taken in the various details of a local magnate’s sudden death. It is to his spacious vault and the nearby chapel that our tramp heads to, for a place to sleep, yet he gets much more than he bargained for… Body snatching, multiple disappearances, blackmail, secret pasts and crimes and much more are in store for Gramp and the locals of the area.
I think one reason why some readers may be reluctant to read an Edwardian/Victorian crime novel, is that unlike their later Golden Age counterparts, they can somewhat give the game away a bit too early. This novel in one respect is no different, with one piece of the solution being pretty obvious from about chapter 2 or 3. I must admit I did begin to feel a little disappointed, yet this disappointment soon dissipated, not because I was wrong about this particular aspect, but that it’s place in the final solution was not quite so prominent as I first envisaged. Hume may give away one surprise early, but as for the others he is good at releasing them carefully at opportune moments. If this story was ever adapted for television I can imagine these surprises comprising the cliff hangers for the end of each episode.
Yet another important facet of this novel is its characters, which Peter Haining, rightly suggests owe something to the literary creations of Charles Dickens. Gramps is definitely the biggest example of this and although he is a morally ambiguous character, he does provide delightful doses of social comedy, his plans not quite coming off in the way he intended. When I first started reading the book I thought perhaps this tale was the inspiration for J. Jefferson Farjeon’s Ben the Tramp mysteries, (many of which have been reprinted by Harper Collins), yet I think Hume takes his own tramp character in a rather different direction. One thing I did find interesting was that the police inspector, asks one of the characters to put up a reward so he can continue investigating the case. This lead to me wondering whether the policeman is taking time off work to investigate and working freelance? I just presumed that his superiors had assigned him to the case and would therefore have sufficient time to solve it. Though this reward is a key part of the plot, as it brings a lot of different parties to surface trying to solve the case for their own gain.
This edition of the novel also includes two additional short stories at the end called ‘The Greenstone God and the Stockbroker’ and ‘The Rainbow Cameilla’ (1896). The former recalls a case of murder which was solved by the unfortunate dropping of a Maori statue, whilst the latter is more of comic horticultural piece, in which a county solicitor is outwitted.
Just the Facts Ma’am (Gold Card): Death by Knife/Dagger