Madame Midas, Fergus Hume

Reading Matters’ Southern Cross Crime Month, March 2021

When Kim at Reading Matters announced Southern Cross Crime Month I had a C19th century Australian detective novel at the back of my mind but struggled to bring it into the light. It was not Ellen Davitt’s Force and Fraud (1886) which Lisa and I both reviewed on its publication in book form for the first time in 2017. Nor was it Madame Midas which I found serendipitously in my ‘new books’ TBR pile; it was of course Hume’s much more famous The Mystery of the Hansom Cab (1886), which seeing as it is not on my shelves I must have borrowed, probably as an audiobook.

The cover notes say Hume self-published The Mystery of the Hansom Cab in Melbourne, where it sold 20,000 copies. He then sold the copyright in London, where it was also a success, in fact “the best-selling mystery novel of the Victorian era”, for £50, and never received another penny. He went on to write 140 novels and a small number of plays.

Fergusson Wright Hume (1859-1932) was born in England, raised and educated in New Zealand, came to Melbourne in 1885 or 6 and returned to England in 1888 (ADB). For the short time he was here he shows a remarkably intimate knowledge of Melbourne life and of underground mining at Ballarat. But he betrays himself in the opening chapter when two French convicts escaped from New Caledonia drift in their stolen boat to the coast of Queensland.

A bleak-looking coast, with huge water-worn promontories jutting out into the sea, daring the tempestuous fury of the waves, which dashed furiously in sheets of foam against the iron rocks.. At the back the cliffs rose in a kind of semi-circle, black and precipitous, to the height of about a hundred feet… At the top of these inhospitable-looking cliffs a line of pale green betrayed the presence of vegetation, and from thence it spread inland into vast rolling pastures ending far away at the outskirts of the bush, above which could be seen giant mountains with snow-covered ranges.

The Madame Midas of the title is a real woman, known to the author, Alice Cornwell, who owned and made a fortune from the Midas Mine in Ballarat. Clare Wright devotes her Introduction to her, another Independent Woman to add to my list, though here she has the name Mrs Villiers. As it is an important part of the plot that Villiers defrauds and deserts her, it is no wonder the real husband sued Hume. Unsuccessfully apparently.

Although The Mystery of the Hansom Cab was reputedly the inspiration for Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet (1887) Madame Midas is not a detective novel. Prior to Sherlock Holmes it was common for the role of detective to be split amongst a number of characters, see Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White (1860) for instance, but even that is not really the case here. About halfway through the novel Villiers attacks his estranged wife and steals from her an enormous gold nugget. Mrs Villiers knocks him down but we know he was still alive later in the night, after which he disappears, and although various people’ including the police, look for him, life goes on.

The two French escapees are a Parisian playboy convicted of poisoning his mistress, who adopts the name Gaston Vandeloup and a big, mute man, unable to read or write, or understand English, whom Vandeloup is constantly worried will reveal his secrets. After we have been introduced to Mrs Villiers and her mine, which is following a promising lead – the bed of a stream buried eons since which contains alluvial gold – the two Frenchmen turn up and are given jobs, Vandeloup as office manager.

Villiers is hanging around Ballarat looking to intimidate his estranged wife into sharing with him her new fortune, after having run through the fortune she inherited from her father. And we get to meet the pretty and innocent Kitty, daughter of a non-conformist minister. There’s also a family of travelling players who pop up as needed, and various others, mostly upper-middle class loafers and socialites.

Vandeloup persuades Kitty to fall in love with him, takes her to Melbourne, but puts off marrying her because the big prize is Mrs Villiers, if Villiers is finally gone. Mrs Villiers makes her fortune and moves to a big house in (Melbourne bayside suburb) St Kilda previously featured in The Mystery of the Hansom Cab. After a year Kitty and Vandeloup break up and Kitty ends up living with Mrs Villiers. Kitty plans to poison Mrs Villiers to stop Vandeloup from marrying her, Vandeloup plans to poison Kitty. Someone puts poison in a glass by Mrs Villiers’ bed. Her companion Selina drinks it and dies.

I won’t tell you any more. It’s an entertaining enough story, with the expected convoluted ending, of general rather than literary fiction quality, but an interesting view of Melbourne after the goldrushes when it was for a while the richest city in the world.

A note for Emma/Book Around the Corner, Fergus Hume’s early novels were apparently inspired by the works of French detective fiction pioneer Émile Gaboriau (1832-1873) who was at that time very popular in Melbourne (in translation).

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Fergus Hume, Madame Midas, self-pub. Melbourne, 1888. My edition Text Classics, Melbourne, 2017.