I’m trying to write more posts about the mystery (or mystery-ish) movies that I watch, and just recently I watched The Mystery of a Hansom Cab, which (as of the writing of this post) is available for streaming on Acorn.
For those of us watching the movie adaptation, The Mystery of a Hansom Cab is a period piece, set in 1880s Australia. This wasn’t the case for author Fergus Hume, who wrote the original work and self-published the novel in Melbourne, in 1886. Unfortunately, despite the novel being a great success, Hume saw little financial gain from its initial release, as he apparently sold the British and American publishing rights for 50 pounds – somewhere in the neighborhood of $8000 to $10000 dollars today. This might seem like a lot, but the novel was wildly successful – by some reports, it was the best-selling crime novel of the Victorian era, outselling contemporaries including several Sherlock Holmes novels.
The production of the made-for-tv-movie was assisted by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, shot on location in Melbourne whenever possible and using digital techniques to help restore an era-appropriate ambiance, and it feels to me like they did a good job, helping ensure that both the setting and costuming produce a strong evocative feeling of an authentic Victorian-era colonial Melbourne. This is especially appropriate considering that one of the main themes of the original novel is the “corrupting” nature of colonialism, the divide between the wealthy and poor classes of the city, and other similar issues of the time that really benefit from a strong visual representation.
Regarding the mystery itself, as is often the case in detective fiction, the victim is an unpleasant individual, and as the work progresses, it eventually becomes apparent that virtually the entire cast seems to have one reason or another to wish him harm. Oliver Whyte (played here by Brett Clemo) is a recently arrived man of apparently good social standing, but he quickly begins blackmailing one of the local leading figures, Mark Frettlby (played by John Waters), to marry Frettlby’s daughter, Madge (Jessica du Gouw), despite her previous engagement and love for Brian Fitzgerald (Oliver Ackland). The case seems open and closed to the initial investigating detective, Detective Gorby (Shane Jacobson), but his rival, Detective Kislip (Felix Williamson) and Fitzgerald’s barrister, Duncan Carlton (Marco Chiappi) both think that the case is more complicated than it first appears – a complication that is eventually to be resolved by the apparently unrelated lower class woman, Sal Rawlins (Chelie Preston Crayford).
The Mystery of a Hansom Cab is a good watch, particularly if you’re interested in Victorian mysteries or are a big fan of well-done period pieces, particularly the setting and costuming. If you have an Acorn subscription, be sure to give it a watch.
I will warn more conservative viewers that there are a few potentially offensive materials – mostly notably very brief nudity, used to set the scene of particularly poverty-stricken areas.