This is hardly a new book, being originally self-published in 1886, but it is a really important book in the history of crime fiction. Firstly, it was the best selling crime novel of the nineteenth century - outstripping both Arthur Conan Doyle and Wilkie Collins. It actually pre-dates Doyle's A Study in Scarlet by one year, and it was an overnight sensation when originally published, selling around 750,000 copies during Hume's lifetime, nearly half of those copies within the first six months of re-publication in London in 1887. By the end of 1886 a total of 20,000 copies had been printed in Melbourne alone - where the population was then less than half a million. Just about every literate adult in Melbourne therefore must have read the book.
The story itself revolves around the death of a, then, unknown man in a Hansom Cab late on a Melbourne night. The victim and an unknown man hail a hansom cab and ask to be taken to St Kilda. The unknown man changes his mind and walks away only to return a few moments later, deciding to take the same trip as the victim. Half-way through the journey the unknown man asks the cabbie to stop, gets out and heads back towards the city. By St Kilda Junction the cabbie, on trying to establish a final address to attend, discovers the dead body of the victim in the back of his cab.
The police investigation firstly must concentrate on trying to identify the victim, and ultimately results in the arrest and charging of a gentlemen who appears to have been a rival for the hand of the daughter of a wealthy local family. But in the tradition of all good crime fiction there is a twist and things are not what they immediately seem.
This is a good old fashioned detecting story - obviously there was no help from advanced forensics in 1886, and the size and nature of a colonial town adds layers and differences to the book from anything that would be written today. All in all, this is still a good book, a good solid story and a highly entertaining and engaging read.