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The Amazing Tale of Fergus Hume and William Freeman; or, the Critic’s Comeuppance


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Part the First: The Ambitious Young Author

Despite having produced more than one hundred and thirty mystery novels between 1886 and 1932, the year of his death, English born, New Zealand raised author Ferguson Wright Hume (1859-1932) today is remembered—to the extent that he is remembered—for one work, his debut murder tale, The Mystery of a Hansom Cab (1886). Accounts typically assert that upon the novel’s publication some 500,000 copies of Hansom Cab were placed into the eager hands of murder fanciers (some sources suggest up to a million copies may have been sold), making the novel a landmark financial success within the mystery genre. Few people indeed ever achieve so much over the course of entire lifetimes, let alone at such a relatively tender age as twenty-seven.

IMG-6199-214x300.jpgAfter having relocated from New Zealand to Australia in the 1880s and found employment as a barrister’s clerk, the young Fergus, a dapper, dandyish fellow with melting eyes and a magnificent wax-tipped handlebar mustache, soon manifested marked literary tendencies. Although he published a few short stories and began crafting plays, these efforts sadly went nowhere.  Determining that what the public really craved in its leisure reading was a nice juicy tale of bloody murder, the neophyte writer, after poring over the celebrated mystery novels of the late French popular author Emile Gaboriau, produced his own original crime story, The Mystery of a Hansom Cab.

Finding resistance among hidebound Australian publishers to this work as well, Hume was forced to the expedient of privately printing it. To everyone’s amazement the novel sold briskly. Hume then made the mistake of his life, parting for a pittance with the book’s precious copyright to an Australian publisher who soon had it flying off shelves not only in Australia but Great Britain and that holy grail of popular fiction writers, the United States. Apparently Hume never made a penny off the book again, although he did at least retain its dramatization rights.  (For more on this remarkable story see author Lucy Sussex’s 2015 book Blockbuster! Fergus Hume & The Mystery of a Hansom Cab.)

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Undaunted by this cruelly unjust turn of economic fortune, the plucky young man determined to make a living as a mystery novelist. By 1888 he had ditched the grasping Australian publisher and abandoned the literary hinterland down under, returning to the beneficent bosom of his mother country, where he would reside for the rest of his life. The next year saw the publication of The Piccadilly Puzzle, Hume’s first mystery set in England and the book which incurred the righteous wrath of a deeply incensed literary critic from halfway around the world.

Part the Second: The Naughty Detective Novel

This critical thunderclap manifested itself in a review of The Piccadilly Puzzle which appeared in the inaugural issue of Zealandia, a short-lived monthly New Zealand literary journal that ran for just a dozen issues. The author of the review, a twenty-four-year-old firebrand socialist journalist named William Freeman, was also the editor of Zealandia. Much of the criticism in Freeman’s piece is acute, in my view, in that it persuasively faults Hume’s novel on principles of “fair play” concerning the presentation of clues, a critique which we tend mistakenly to associate today only with the Golden Age of detective fiction (c. 1920-1939); but the review also strikes an uncommonly scathing tone concerning what Freeman deemed the book’s unpardonable moral lapses. If by chance Hume came across this fulmination from a fellow New Zealander and was offended by it, he at least got the last laugh on the man who likely was his harshest critic.

Before getting to the red meat of the Zealandia review and the bizarre fate of the reviewer, some words about The Piccadilly Puzzle are required. Clearly inspired by the recent Jack the Ripper serial murders which had terrorized London (as was another Victorian mystery novel published at this time, Benjamin Farjeon’s Devlin the Barber), The Piccadilly Puzzle revolves around the mysterious murder of a woman on a foggy night in a major London thoroughfare. The woman, initially thought to be a “streetwalker” (shades of the ghastly Whitechapel slayings) soon is identified as a certain Miss Sarschine, the mistress of a prominent lord who, it seems, has just eloped to the Azores on his private yacht with another lord’s wife. The dead woman was neither strangled nor stabbed but, rather, poisoned—the poison apparently being one of those mysterious tropical toxins unknown to Western science, the use of which later would be much frowned upon during the Golden Age. Coincidentally (or perhaps not), poor defunct Miss Sarschine, that lovely lady of lamentably easy virtue, had a pair of Malay kris, complete with fatally poisoned blades, hanging on a wall of the bedroom of her love nest.  (Apparently deadly envenomed daggers as a decorative accent add just the right final touch to a romantic evening spent with one’s paramour.)

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For reasons best known to themselves, London police authorities put a private detective named Dowker entirely in charge of the murder case. As a character this Mr. Dowker is not remotely interesting, but he has, to be sure, a “colorful” Cockney sidekick, a puckish street urchin named Flip, who speaks—cor blimey, I swear, guv’nor!—like this: “e gives me sumat to eat when I arsks it, so I goes h’up to cadge some wictuals, I gits cold meat, my h’eye, prime, an’ bread an’ beer, so when I ’ad copped the grub, I was a-gittin’ away h’out of the bar when a swell cove comes in — lor’ what a swell — fur coat an’ shiny ’at. Ses to the gal, ses ’e….” However much I admire Hume’s perseverance in producing so many apostrophe marks, I have to confess my eye flew past Flip’s speeches as fast as was humanly possible. Did ever a Baker Street Irregular speak quite so irregularly?

The mystery in The Piccadilly Puzzle is every bit as convoluted as Flip’s speech. In addition to untraceable poisons, Hume for good measure throws into the mix identical twins—another Golden Age no-no—as an additional plot complication. Alas, in the end the mystery is not really “fair play,” an overheard confession being necessary to bring about the killer’s exposure; nor is it particularly tricky, once one is clued into the author’s devices of deception.

Fergus Hume became known for having a favored narrative construction in many of his mystery tales, whereby a series of individuals are suspected in turn, only to have the author pull a “surprise” culprit out of his top hat. To be sure, this keeps the story churning along, but it also makes the wary reader immediately look for the culprit among the characters whom no one suspects. It all rather resembles the least likely suspect gambit famously associated with Agatha Christie, without having any of the great Golden Age Crime Queen’s uncanny finesse.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about The Piccadilly Puzzle is not the sexual immorality (or amorality) of the characters per se—after all sensation novels are nothing without sensation and they were criticized on moral grounds long before Hume’s arrival on the literary scene—but the striking casualness with which such attitudes and behaviors are conveyed by the author. One would conclude from this tale that the English aristocracy in 1889 was hopelessly debauched. One lord seduces a young woman, sets her up in a London love nest, then commences an affair with a woman married to another lord. (In an exceedingly unlikely twist, this woman turns out to be the identical twin sister of his aforementioned mistress). Additionally, we learn that the straying wife had already had a sexual affair with another, younger man, breaking with this man in order to marry the lord. (It seems she coveted a title.) After learning of his wife’s wayward ways the lord she married regrets that he impulsively wed the hussy rather than simply making her his mistress, as the other lord did with the other sister. “Sounds like the second act of a French play,” remarks one character. Indeed it does!

It is worth noting in this context that queer author Oscar Wilde’s controversial book The Picture of Dorian Gray was published a year after The Piccadilly Puzzle. Wilde’s short novel incurred much hostile critical fire that year, getting damned in print as “nauseous,” “unclean,” “effeminate” and “contaminating.” While Fergus Hume, in contrast with Wilde, clearly had not attempted a work of literary ambition in writing The Piccadilly Puzzle, he had, with his titillating tale of murder and assorted sexual misbehavior in English high society, given readers a decided whiff—whether fragrant or foul depending on the individual sense of the reader—of fin de siècle decadence.

Part the Third: The Revolted Reviewer

This brings us, finally, to William Freeman’s outraged denunciation of The Piccadilly Puzzle in the pages of Zealandia. It is perhaps the most scathingly detailed review of a mystery novel which I have ever encountered. In Freeman’s eyes The Piccadilly Puzzle was an aesthetic abomination to be despised as a reprehensible failure on all conceivable counts: literary, technical and moral.

In Freeman’s eyes The Piccadilly Puzzle was an aesthetic abomination to be despised as a reprehensible failure on all conceivable counts: literary, technical and moral.

At the time Freeman wrote his condemnatory review of Hume’s fifth mystery tale, Hume was a New Zealand celebrity as the author of, as Freeman put it, “the most successful novel of the day.” To be sure, Hume shortly would find himself overtaken and surpassed by his rival Arthur Conan Doyle, six weeks Hume’s elder, who had already published A Study in Scarlet in 1887 and would produce, in an explosion of creative genius, The Sign of Four and the dozen short stories comprising The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes in 1890-92. Yet by publishing mystery tales at such an awesome rate—he was, along with such later English crime writers as Edgar Wallace, John Street and John Creasey, one of the most prolific producers in the history of the mystery genre—Hume managed to maintain a relatively successful writing career over the next quarter century or so.

Only after the outbreak of World War One, when Hume lost his American publisher, suffered the onslaught of superior detective fiction writers from the Golden Age like Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers and Freeman Wills Crofts and saw his health markedly decline (it is doubtful that he produced any original fiction after 1924), did he find his financial prospects drastically darkening. His last years were spent residing in a single rented room in a bungalow in the Essex town of Thundersley and he died, if not literally penniless as is often stated, leaving an estate valued at merely two hundred pounds (about fourteen thousand pounds today). In contrast with the celebrated creator of Sherlock Holmes, who passed on two years earlier, melancholy newspaper accounts of the obscure death of Fergus Hume, who was discovered in the bungalow’s bathroom dead of cardiac arrest at the age of seventy-three, were headlined “A Forgotten Author.”

Yet those sadder days of diminishment were a long way off in 1889, when Hume was still big news and interest in his literary fate was high, especially in New Zealand, where he was the colonial who had astonished the entire writing world, even if he had not always impressed it. “What a swindle The Mystery of a Hansom Cab is,” wrote Arthur Conan Doyle disgustedly in a letter at this time. “One of the weakest tales I have read, and simply sold by puffing.”

Like Conan Doyle, William Freeman, a noted controversialist in his day, was not one to be intimidated by fame. In 1889 Freeman himself, who had been humbly born in the Whitechapel district of London in 1863, the son of a commercial traveler and his dressmaker wife, had authored his own weighty sensation tale, ambitiously modeled on Charles Dickens and entitled, with unwitting prescience on his part, He Who Digged a Pit. In the very opening lines of his review of The Piccadilly Puzzle, Freeman made his contempt for Hume’s latest crime opus brutally plain. The book, he wrote damningly, in the sort of criticism which has since often been leveled against plot-focused mysteries

…is not a tale: it is a bald bare plot, with nothing good and pleasing to recommend it. It has absolutely none of the touches of poetic descriptive, pathos and humor which explain the popularity of [Hume’s] earlier books. There is not a fine sentiment in it from cover to cover; no tender chords are stirred by a single passage; there is no delicate shading, no touch of an artist’s hand; nothing new—no anything but a sombre, highly sensational plot, and an unadorned description of an impossible detective’s unavailing efforts to unravel the tangled clues of a crime, the original of which is clearly one of the Whitechapel murders.

In addition to pronouncing The Piccadilly Puzzle poorly written—its prose lacked the “beauties which hid the repulsiveness of the plots in [two of Hume’s earlier tales, The Mystery of a Hansom Cab and Madame Midas]”—Freeman damned the book as well for essentially failing to adhere to what some thirty years later, during the Golden Age of the detective novel, would be called the fair play standard. In the critic’s eyes Fergus Hume did not play fair with his readers but, rather, with shameless mendacity led them down the garden path:

The most remarkable feature about the characters is that very nearly all of them (the hero included) scatter about a reckless profusion of lies, introduced not at all because they are necessary but solely to mystify the reader. The author leads the way himself in this deception, for at the very outset he deliberately misleads the reader as to the thoughts of the murderer (pp. 5 and 7) and throws suspicion on the hero by making him start at hearing mentioned the name of the street in which the murder is committed (p. 6), though at the time he had no idea that any murder had been perpetrated and there was no reason he should attach more importance to a mention of Jermyn Street than any other street in the city. It is permissible in fiction to so relate actions as to infer [sic] that an innocent man is guilty, but surely both the above artifices are unjustifiable. It is to be expected in a novel that a professional detective and a professional villain should lie whenever the opportunity offered, but to find all the principal characters lying easily and readily, whenever the author deems it necessary to mislead the reader, makes this a coarse and rude expedient which even the tyro in literature would ordinarily avoid. 

A hot and bothered Freeman also took Hume to task for the numerous improbabilities which the author scattered throughout his tale, including that vexed matter, already mentioned above, of the Malay kris: “No one in the book is surprised at the ornamental arms on the walls of a lady’s boudoir, including two poisoned (p. 21) Malay daggers! Ornamental arms are usually kept bright by servants, and it is somewhat remarkable that this particular poison …was never cleaned off!” Freeman concludes his jeremiad by asserting that constructing “a whole plot out of nothing else [but improbabilities] is straining the credulity of readers too far.” Arguably not until Raymond Chandler took on the entire classic English school of detective fiction over a half-century later in his brutal essay “The Simple Art of Murder” would a critic write so damningly of what he deemed the tawdry “dishonesty” of the traditional puzzle-focused mystery novel.

Having disposed of Fergus Hume’s writing and plotting to his own evident satisfaction, Freeman then proceeded to blast The Piccadilly Puzzle for its sundry moral transgressions. “The worst feature of the book,” thundered Freeman righteously, “is its moral tone.” In Freeman’s horrified eyes, the characters of The Piccadilly Puzzle wallowed “in a seething mass of moral corruption which the author cynically disdains to hide behind the slightest shadow of the veil of decency.” Even the heroine’s moral conduct Freeman deemed objectionable. In Freeman’s view, Hume seemed “to consider it natural that everybody should be immoral.” The author portrayed this immorality “with a coarse fidelity” that Freeman found “positively repulsive.”  Thundered the critic: “[T]he whole moral tone of the book is low.”

Freeman closed his resoundingly minatory review article by expressing his “emphatic condemnation” of other New Zealand writers embarking on the “dangerous” literary course which Fergus Hume had treacherously set for them. For better or worse, the young author now represented New Zealand before the eyes of the world, Freeman declared, and it had been incumbent upon him to set a good example. Sadly, Hume had shirked his duty as an author to stand with “that which is clean, wholesome and pure-minded” and instead had brazenly paraded throughout his new mystery novel a filthy and morally repulsive spectacle. What, one has to wonder, motivated Freeman to compose such a splenetic piece against Hume? Did the critic hold some form of personal animus against the author, who before he left Australia appears to have had to pay hush money to a couple of unsavory characters in order to avoid becoming publicly exposed in a queer sex scandal? (See Lucy Sussex’s essay “The Queer Story of Fergus Hume” in the 2017 Edgar-nominated essay collection Murder in the Closet.) What did Hume himself make of Freeman’s remarkably strident, sermon-like review of The Piccadilly Puzzle—and of the sudden ironical downward turn in the critic’s own personal fortunes?

Part the Fourth: The Critic’s Comeuppance

Like many another hopefully launched literary journal, Zealandia soon went defunct and in 1890 Freeman—whose full name was William Freeman Kitchen—had become the editor of a newspaper, the Dunedin Globe. A year later he resigned from the paper, amid great controversy. Under his management the Globe made what were later determined by government investigation to be baseless charges against the Seacliff Lunatic Asylum (an institution which once had been run by Fergus Hume’s father), its offices were set on fire and Freeman was found to have lied about the large amount of money the paper was losing each month. As an Australian newspaper later reported, Freeman by this time “was looked upon with suspicion and distrust even by many of those with whom he had formerly been on terms of the closest friendship and intimacy.” Then, over the next few years, Freeman’s own life fell apart, as it took on a resemblance to something out of the more sensational sensation novels.

Then, over the next few years, Freeman’s own life fell apart, as it took on a resemblance to something out of the more sensational sensation novels.

By 1893 Freeman, leaving his wife Annie and two sons behind in New Zealand, had moved to Australia, where it was announced in a newspaper that he had tragically died of “acute inflammation” at the age of thirty. Yet that very same year Freeman was discovered in the flesh in New Zealand, very much alive and in the company of another woman whom he claimed as his wife. In Australia Freeman had, it transpired, falsely announced his own death (after adopting another appellation, “Frank Temple Vane, B.A.”), found employment as a theatrical agent and bigamously wed Charlotte “Lottie” Hazelwood Hannam, a “world famous” eighteen-year-old “phrenologist, scientific palmist and clairvoyant” who went by the exotic stage name of Madame Aramanda.

The critic’s comeuppance finally came after Freeman returned to Dunedin with Madame Aramanda’s touring company—surely an imprudent move, despite his having taken steps, in classic mystery novel fashion, to avoid detection by altering his appearance. (He had shaved his light red mustache and grown side whiskers, which he had dyed a dark color, along with his eyebrows and now straightened, formerly curly, hair.) When accosted as none other than the late William Freeman by astonished former acquaintances, the disgraced journalist boldly insisted that he was, to the contrary, William Freeman’s cousin. (Whether he claimed to be, like the Patty Duke characters of Sixties American television fame, an “identical cousin,” records do not divulge.)

His incredible imposture having predictably proven an utter failure and fiasco, Freeman tried to flee the island, having first inveigled Lottie to loan him all of her money, but he was captured and arrested by police. He had brought with him a bottle of chloroform, from which he planned fatally to imbibe if the authorities caught up with him, but in the event he poured out the contents of the bottle instead. Upon his enforced removal to the city of Wellington he was tried for desertion and bigamy, although providentially for Freeman his case was dismissed after his wife Annie mercifully withdrew her charges, opting simply to launch a divorce suit instead.

“It does seem absurd that he should be chased about the island, and caught and escorted with the closest attention to Wellington, only to be let off,” a New Zealand newspaper groused of Freeman’s last minute escape from New Zealand’s mills of justice. “The law knows best…but…most people thought he would get five years, at the least.” A vastly worse fate lay in store for Freeman than a term of penal servitude, however. After reading in 1897 that Lottie, whom he had wed—legally this time—after his first wife’s divorce petition was granted, had been injured while on tour in Australia, the once promising young journalist and literary critic committed suicide at his Sydney lodgings by cutting his throat with a razor.

Lottie, aka Madame Aramanda proved more durable than her doubting husband had thought, however, for in 1911 she was still very much alive and kicking, working as a barmaid in a public house in Victoria, when she won a fortune of five thousand pounds in a lottery (about half a million pounds today), roughly half of which she was compelled to split with litigants who claimed they had chipped in too. Possibly Lottie was clairvoyant after all! Most mysteriously, Madame Aramanda, though only in her thirties, then vanishes from the annals of history—perhaps the services of a modern-day psychic are needed to trace her. (For more on Freeman and his deeds—and misdeeds—see Allison Oosterman’s A Tangled Web, a 2012 “creative work and exegesis” submitted at the Auckland University of Technology.)

Truly, this weird turn of events was almost, if not quite, as queer as any of those which Fergus Hume salaciously detailed in The Piccadilly Puzzle. As far as I am aware, however, neither identical twins nor poisons unknown to science were involved in William Freeman Kitchen’s all too real life sensation. The seemingly indefatigable Fergus Hume would go on for another thirty-five years to write an unbroken string of nearly one hundred more detective novels, although his name tenaciously clings to its place in crime genre history by virtue of his being the author of the once celebrated Mystery of a Hansom Cab. While Hume’s Picadilly Puzzle may well be justly forgotten as a mystery tale, William Freeman’s scathing review of the novel deserves to be remembered as a masterpiece of unintended irony, given the dramatic developments in his life which occurred shortly afterward. As an astounded Australian newspaper observed at the time of the startling downfall of Mr. William Freeman Kitchen (aka Frank Temple Vane, B.A.): “His history…would furnish the sensational novelist with material for a three-volume work of more than a commonly sensational character.”

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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