Thursday 11 May 2017


Crime and law not only impacts on lgbt lives in real life but also in fiction. There’s a large amount of lgbt crime and detective novels. Crime detection itself has been a popular genre in literature for over a century. Whether it’s a whodunit thriller, mystery or police detective story there are many lgbt writers who have made a career out crime.

The modern crime novel traces its roots back to the gothic novels of the 18th and 19th centuries. Perhaps the first that can be called a mystery novel is Edgar Allen Poe’s 1841 novel “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”. Some of the early modern crime novels that include lgbt characters mirrored their portrayal in film and television. Gay men were seen as victims, or devious criminals. The film “Victim” starring Dirk Bogarde in 1961, released during the process of discussion into decriminalising some homosexual activity, helped to give the general public a more sympathetic face to gay men.

One sympathetic gay male detective in fiction appeared before the Wolfenden Report was published in 1956. In “The Heart in Exile” written by Rodney Garland, published in 1953, a London psychiatrist becomes amateur detective in a quest to find the truth behind the death of his male partner. He may have been the first gay amateur sleuth.

Which brings me on to one specific character whom I’m sure has already sprung into your mind, and a character who has been beset with gay speculation for decades – Sherlock Holmes. I am not one of those who thinks there was anything remotely homosexual about the relationship between Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. That doesn’t stop other others from hinting or speculating, particularly film and television.

Even though there were no gay detectives in the 19th century there were some lgbt authors writing crime fiction. I don’t know if you can really call the gothic novels of Horace Walpole (1717-1797) as crime or mystery novels, but they belong to the literary group which evolved into them via “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”. Wilkie Collins’s 1868 novel “The Moonstone” was an early form of the classic crime detective mystery. The stories of the afore-mentioned Sherlock Holmes became the most famous of the Victorian crime detectives, but sandwiched in between them was the biggest best-selling whodunit of the era, “The Mystery of a Hansom Cab” by Fergus Hume.

Fergus Hume (1859-1932) was British ex-pat in New Zealand whose parents ran a lunatic asylum. Moving to Melbourne, Australia, in 1885 he hoped to kick-start his play-writing career by penning “The Mystery of a Hanson Cab” and establishing his writing credentials. To his surprise it became a blockbuster when published in London the following year. One of the people who read the novel was Arthur Conan Doyle. It probably partly inspired him to create Sherlock Holmes. Both Hume and Conan Doyle saw their original detective novels as one-off put their popularity meant that the public clamoured for more of the same. Both authors supplied that demand and it would be Sherlock Holmes’s popularity that would overshadow that of any other literary detective of that era.

Hume returned to his native England and continued to write and churn out 140 novels, most of them mystery and crime fiction. Very little of his personal life is known. He is not known to have kept a diary or journal. A couple of experiences may have exposed the young Fergus Hume to homosexuality, even though it was illegal at the time.

First there was the lunatic asylum run by his parents in which they also lived. A government report at the time mentioned that the “abominable vice”, the phrase frequently encountered when homosexuality is discussed, was present in many asylums. Second, Hume went to a traditionally English public school in New Zealand where all the Greek classics and Greek love were major parts of his education. Schoolboy crushes between the boys often developed into physical relationships.

Fergus Hume never married and no romantic involvement with women are known. His biographer, Lucy Sussex, speculates on his sexuality, citing his association with a couple of antipodean actors in who were imprisoned for homosexual offences. Hume was considered a dandy, someone who paraded in his finery in the streets. One of Hume’s later books was a Utopian novel in which the ancient Greek civilisation is recreated on an island.

There is much homoerotic content and Hume said he had researched the era extensively. The novel also included a poem entitled “Venus Urania”, a name which inspired a group of Victorian poets. Hume also said he studied the Uranian poetry of John Addington Symonds, one of the pioneers of gay rights.

There is a tantalising suggestion here. Would Fergus Hume have become one of the individuals whose sexuality was an “open secret” but never admitted? Taking it further, did Arthur Conan Doyle unwittingly put some of Fergus Hume’s own flamboyant character into his later Sherlock Holmes novels? Hume was enough of a celebrity to have met most of Victorian society when he arrived back in England in the 1880s, even Conan Doyle.

In the words of Lucy Sussex, “Ultimately, though, Hume tantalises but never reveals his personal mystery.”

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