Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Mysteries and tote bags bring the drama

Republishing formerly-popular books seems to have become a Thing, and I am 110% on board with it (as you'll see from the many posts I make in the next few months about books like this). It's historically interesting to read something written in another era, and doubly so if the book was popular when first published; plus there's that added dash of intrigue if the book has since gone out of print.

And supposing we were to add foreignness to this already-irresistible equation? Ooh la la.

I bought The Mystery of a Hansom Cab by Fergus Hume at Daunt Books, which is almost always included on lists of interesting London bookstores. Located in the rather trendy Marylebone area, it's old and gorgeous and so on -- I don't want to steal other people's pictures, but if you Google Image search it, you'll see what I mean.

Daunt totebags are very popular at the British Library. I like to imagine that the readers putting their things in the lockers are composing catty little monologues worthy of a fashion week runway show audience. What, did she buy that Daunt tote this morning? That's right, bitch, I bought mine in '95, get a good look. A British Library tote at the British Library? Well aren't you just a delicate creative soul. Ooh, the beach umbrella Strand tote - that's a bold choice. Personally, I carry the Pride & Prejudice tote from Out of Print, a Christmas gift from my BFF. Thank you Laura! I feel like I can hold my own amongst the lit types now.
Haters to the left.
Aside from being pretty and whatnot, Daunt bills itself as a "travel" bookshop, and probably 60-70% of the store is arranged by countries, with travel guides, maps, essay collections, and fiction shelved together. Yes, it's pretty darn cool, and it makes you want to read lots of things from countries you don't usually read things from. The Mystery of a Hansom Cab is an 1886 Australian mystery novel set in Melbourne. Yes please.

The book is the sort of thing that makes me think, "ah, so this is why the Sherlock Holmes stories are such classics." It's not that it's bad, it's just that it's not particularly great. I know there's always a fair amount of angst about "the canon" and what gets called a classic and so, and certainly I'd never say that The Classics are the only books worth reading or anything like that -- if for no other reason than that people ought to read whatever they particularly like -- but at the same time, some books definitely stand the test of time better than others.

The Mystery of a Hansom Cab is one of those books that features a lot of Victorian angst. Why yes, I do have a good example:
But when Frettlby turned to go to the door, Madge, who had her eyes fixed on the doctor's face, saw how grave it was.
     "There is danger," she said, touching his arm as they paused, for a moment, at the door.
     "No! No!" he answered hastily.
     "Yes, there is," she persisted. "Tell me the worst, it is best for me to know."
     The doctor looked at her in some doubt for a few moments, and then placed his hand on her shoulder. "My dear young lady," he said gravely, "I will tell you what I have not dared to tell your father."
     "What?" she asked in a low voice, her face growing pale.
     "His heart is affected."
     "And there is great danger?"
     "Yes, great danger. In the event of any sudden shock--" he hesitated.
     "Yes -"
     "He would probably drop down dead."

The plot is plot is pretty contrived and the ending is fairly ridiculous -- moral of the story, kids: as long as secrets stay secret, everyone is much happier -- but it's entertaining enough. You know how people sometimes use the word "workmanlike" as kind of a diss for artistic things (I think they do anyway)? I kept thinking that the writing in this book was pretty workmanlike. The characters and the plot points clicked along but there wasn't an enormous amount of feeling to it. Lots of very convenient coincidences, people collapsing and throwing themselves at other peoples' feet as the story demands, that kind of thing. Again, it sort of shines a light on why, of all the Victorian detective fiction, Sherlock Holmes has endured. (Which reminds me that another curious feature of the story is that there are two detectives, one in the first and one in the second half of the case, and they aren't actually all that central. Is the star detective a development in the genre?)

Yeah, yeah, yeah, but I didn't buy it because I thought it was going to be the most thrilling mystery I'd ever read: I bought it because I was intrigued by its being Australian. For the most part the local color doesn't come in until the second half of the book, but it's there in spades. If nothing else, the solution to the mystery hinges on a contrast between the wild old days of the colony and the more respectable contemporary society. But there are little digressions that stress the "John Bull" character of the Australians and also discuss the backwardness of the weather and so on. And there's a foray (of course) into Melbourne's equivalent of Seven Dials:
If there is one thing which the Melbourne folk love more than another, it is music, their fondness for which is only equalled by their admiration for horse racing. Any street band which plays at all decently may be sure of a good audience, and a substantial remuneration for their playing. Some writer has described Melboune as Glasgow, with the sky of Alexandria, and certainly the beautiful climate of Australia, so Italian in its brightness, must have a great effect on the nature of such an adaptable race as the Anglo-Saxon.
     In spite of the dismal prognostications of Marcus Clarke regarding the future Australian, which he describes as being 'a tall, coarse, strong-jawed, greedy, pushing, talented man, excelling in swimming and horsemanship,' it is more likely that he will be a cultured, indolent individual, with an intense appreciation of the arts and sciences, and a dislike to hard work and utilitarian principles. Climatic influence should be taken into account with regard to the future Australian, and our posterity will be no more like us than the luxurious Venetians resembled their hardy forefathers, who first started to build on those lonely sandy islands of the Adriatic.
     This was the conclusion Mr Calton arrived at as he followed his guide through the crowded streets, and saw with what deep interest the crowd listened to the rhythmic strains of Strauss and the sparkling melodies of Offenbach. The brilliantly lit street, with the never ceasing stream of people pouring along; the shrill cries of the street Arabs, the rattle of vehicles, and the fitful strains of music, all made up a scene which fascinated him, and he could have gone on wandering all night, watching the myriad phases of human character constantly passing beneath his eyes.
I am assuming that this book has featured in some kind of academic work, although my quick JSTOR search didn't turn anything up.

Anyway, on the whole, even though I did not discover a new favorite piece of fiction, this book was quite entertaining, intentionally and unintentionally.

1 comment:

  1. Quick story: one time when I visited Carl in New York, I for some reason didn't think I needed a purse. But when we were walking and I was holding about five things in my hands, I was like "Hold up, I've gotta buy some kind of bag thing" and we stopped at the Strand and I bought a bag and I love it. It has stripes!

    Also your bag is awesome and Laura has good taste. Also I do not like Australia.