Interview: Ngaio Marsh Award finalist Lucy Sussex talks about Blockbuster!
Before there was Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, there was Fergus Hume’s The Mystery of a Hansom Cab the biggest and fastest-selling detective novel of the 1800s, and Australia’s first literary blockbuster. BLOCKBUSTER! is the engrossing story of a book that would help define the genre of crime fiction, and a portrait of a great city in full bloom. NZ Booklovers talks with author Lucy Sussex.
Tell us a little about Blockbuster! Fergus Hume and the Mystery of the Hansom Cab.
It’s a book about the biggest selling crime novel of the 1800s, which was written by a lawyer from Dunedin, Fergus Hume. He was very definite that he belonged to New Zealand. The Hansom Cab effectively created the market for Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes–which did not see print until after Hume’s novel appeared in England. Doyle in fact was jealous of its success.
What inspired you to write this book?
Growing up in Christchurch, everybody knew about Ngaio Marsh. But I never heard of Hume, until I got a job as researcher for Professor Stephen Knight, who works in the history of crime fiction. Stephen correctly intuited that there was something a bit dodgy about Hume’s London publishers, The Hansom Cab Publishing Co. It took the digitisation of newspapers, including Papers Past in NZ, to reveal just how dodgy and successful the operation was. I spent a morning chasing e-links across the Tasman and in the UK, and at the end of it knew I had an amazing story to tell.
What research was involved?
Hume left no papers, & few letters. I largely used the newspapers, with some archival research in Dunedin (where his father James ran the madhouse) and Melbourne. There was quite enough information for the book from the digitised sources alone. When I hit a gap in the records I went and interviewed old-style publishers, or book collectors. That was fun.
What is the most surprising fact you discovered when researching this book?
There were a few. One was that a small-press book from the colonies could, with clever promotion, become an international success. Another was a copycat murder in Manchester. After three people asked me if Hume was gay, I had to research that too, and discovered he got blackmailed. By, er, a black male, an actor from the West Indies.
What was your routine or process when writing this book?
I largely researched as I wrote, which gives you impetus, crossing my fingers all the while that nothing would emerge in the process of digitisation that would send my argument down a cul de sac. Luckily it didn’t.
After researching for this book, what do you think are the necessary ingredients to write a bestseller? And what takes it from being a bestseller to being a global phenomenon?
Research the market–Hume chose crime only after asking booksellers what was selling well.
Have writing skills and knowledge of the subject– Hume was a playwright, and as a lawyer knew all about crime.
Spend time on your ms–The book got rewritten after Hume decided the original villain was too obvious.
Have narrative momentum– Even now the whodunnit makes the book very hard to put down.
Globally, the book benefited from being innovative and from being in the right place at the right time–crime fiction was just coalescing as a literary genre. The PR shenigans of publisher Fred Trischer helped as well!
If you could go back in time and give Fergus Hume any advice, what would it be?
Don’t sell your copyright, thinking the book won’t sell in England!
What did you do to celebrate finishing this book?
I was too exhausted! I had been trying to make the publisher’s deadline…
What is the favourite book you have read so far this year and why?
I got for review As the Lonely Fly, by Sara Dowse. It is a family saga, based on fact and women’s lives, about the relationship between Bolsheviks and the early kibbutzes in what was then Palestine. It’s an outstanding read.
What’s next on the agenda for you?
I’m writing about the first English woman amateur detective, from the mid-1600s. She solved her husband’s murder, at a time when there were no police detectives. It’s all true!