My friend's exposition was quite learned, in its way, although nutty as an almond tree. And I found myself halfway through a full-throated defense of the Uncle Abner stories before I figured out that my widely read friend had never read them or even heard of their author, Melville Davisson Post.
Someday, I really am going to write my long-promised essay on "God and the Detectives," the role of religion in mysteries. But, meanwhile, are there others like my poor, benighted friendlovers of mystery fiction who've never read the case files of Uncle Abner?
If so, maybe it's worth reproducing some notes I did a few years ago for the Weekly Standard:
The Mystery of Melville Davisson Post
There is a case to be made that the Uncle Abner storiesthe twenty-two tales of the Virginia hills written by Melville Davisson Post between 1911 and 1928are among the finest mysteries ever written.
Ellery Queen certainly thought so, calling the stories "an out-of-this-world target for future detective-story writers." In Cargoes for Crusoes, a failed attempt back in 1924 to teach literary critics about the quality of the fiction that was appearing in popular magazines, Grant Overton called the publication of Post's "The Doomdorf Mystery" a major literary event. In a later survey of the genrethe 1941 Murder for Pleasure, a book that succeeded where Overton's had failed, convincing critics to take mysteries more seriously as literatureHoward Haycraft declared that Uncle Abner was, after Edgar Allan Poe's Arsène Dupin, "the greatest American contribution" to the cast of fictional detectives. When William Faulkner, discouraged by slow sales of his highbrow fiction, tried his hand at thrillers, Post was the model to which he turned.
And yet, high as Post's tales rank in general mystery fiction, they stand at the very top of the subgenre of religious mysteries. In the deliberate tone of the stories and the matching of the writing's pitch to its subject, in the uniting of the religious element with the detective's action and the sense of good's battle against evil in the solution of a crime, only G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown belongs beside Melville Davisson Post's Uncle Abner.
The stories starring Uncle Abner are hard to find. When Post brought eighteen of them out as Uncle Abner: Master of Mysteries in 1918, the volume stayed in print for almost twenty yearsand then seemed suddenly and mysteriously to disappear, despite the praise it continued to receive from discerning critics like Haycraft. A 1962 reprint with an introduction by Anthony Boucher made little impression before slipping away. A University of California volume from the 1970s, long ago exhausted, is the only complete edition, adding the four magazine tales Post wrote after 1918. A partial collection in Dover Press' mystery reprint series is out of stock, with no apparent plans for republishing.
"I ought to say a word about my Uncle Abner," the narrator tries to explain in 1911's "The Angel of the Lord," the first of these tales set just before the Civil War in the cattle country and hills of what would later become West Virginia. "He was one of those austere, deeply religious men who were the product of the Reformation. He always carried a Bible in his pocket and he read it where he pleased. Once the crowd at Roy's Tavern tried to make sport of him when he got his book out by the fire; but they never tried it again. . . . Abner belonged to the church militant, and his God was a war lord."
There's something of a caricature here, a two-dimensional, stock character that was, once upon a time, intuitively familiar to American readers. Indeed, the disappearance of Post's stories from print at least parallels, if it was not caused by, the startlingly rapid vanishing of this stock character from Americans' vision of themselves and their history.
By the next year, in 1912's "The Riddle," the eighth of the Uncle Abner stories, Post had strengthened his character. "I wish I could get my Uncle Abner before your eye," the narratoran adult retelling events from his boyhoodbegins.
He was one of those austere, deeply religious men who might have followed Cromwell, with a big iron frame, a grizzled beard and features forged out by a smith. His god was the god of the Tishbite, who numbered his followers by the companies who drew the sword. The land had need of men like Abner. The government of Virginia was over the Alleghenies, and this great, fertile cattle country, hemmed in by the far-off mountains like a wall of the world, had its own peace to keep. And it was these iron men who kept it. The fathers had got this land in grants from the King of England; they had held it against the savage and finally against the King himself. . . . And the sons were like them.
Notice how religious history has merged with political history to flesh out Uncle Abner from American caricature to American archetype, and how the language itself has thickened into an unforced King Jamesian diction that immediately sets an atmosphere for the story that follows. That such work should be unavailable is absurd. Where are America's publishers? Where, in particular, are America's religious publishersespecially the evangelical presses that keep so much else in print? You can't imagine Catholic publishing houses allowing Chesterton's The Innocence of Father Brown to fall out of print, but why the evangelical houses have so far failed to promote Uncle Abner, the stern American Calvinist who is our greatest religious detective, is itself a mystery.
Post was a technical innovator of note. The writing of mystery fiction presents the literary craftsman with a problem, for it always involves two awkwardly related movements: the narration of the crime and the narration of the detection. One solutionused in mysteries from R. Austin Freeman's "Dr. Thorndyke" tales of scientific detection in the early 1900s to the Columbo television programs in the 1970sis simply to reveal everything from the beginning: opening with a complete account of the crime, and then presenting the detective's struggle to pick up the threads of what the audience already knows. Another solutioninvented by Poe, raised to its highest pitch in Arthur Conan Doyle's The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and smoothed to a machine-like regularity by Agatha Christieis to invert the story's chronology: opening with the detective's uncovering of the evidence, and then presenting (as the detective's solution) an account of the crime.
What Post brought to such tales was a gradually developing notion of how to make the story work on a single passa solution to the mystery writer's problem that is now so common we hardly notice how regularly such admired recent works as Michael Connelly's The Poet and Void Moon lack the traditional postscript of the detective's explanation. "It occurred to me that [the] defects could be eliminated by folding together the arms of the Poe formula," Post wrote toward the end of his life. "Instead of giving the reader the mystery and then going over the same ground with the solution, the mystery and its solution might be given together. The developing of the mystery and the development toward the solution would go forward side by side; and when all the details of the mystery were uncovered the solution also would be uncovered and the end of the story arrived at."
The most commonly anthologized of Post's Uncle Abner stories is "The Doomdorf Mystery," a locked-room puzzle from the middle days of the "impossible murder" subgenre of mystery fiction, after Israel Zangwill's full-length attempt in English with The Big Bow Mystery (1895) and Gaston Leroux's heightening of the subgenre with The Mystery of the Yellow Room (1907), but before John Dickson Carr systematically exhausted the possibilities of locked rooms with works such as The Problem of the Wire Cage (1939).
A walk through the storythough it must necessarily come close to giving away the mystery's endinghelps reveal the author's method. "The Doomdorf Mystery" tells of Uncle Abner and his brother Randolphthe local squire and justice of the peace, a supercilious man who makes an admirable Dr. Watsonlike foil for Abner's detectionriding up into the hills to confront Doomdorf, a notorious moonshiner whose peach liquor has inflamed the poor whites and slaves of the countryside.
Post always loved a biblical turn. In a typical passage in "Naboth's Vineyard," the county doctor asks, "But where is the motive?"and Abner replies, "In the twenty-first chapter of the Book of Kings." So, too, in "The Doomdorf Mystery," when Abner and Randolph arrive at their destination, they find a Protestant preacher, a "circuit rider of the hills," sitting on his horse before the door. "'Bronson,' said Abner, 'where is Doomdorf?' The old man lifted his head and looked down at Abner over the pommel of the saddle. 'Surely,' he said, 'he covereth his feet in his summer chamber.'"
Even for the biblically literate readership of Post's time, this is a rather cryptic way of announcing that Doomdorf is dead. But the story from which Bronson quotesEhud's assassination of the Moabite king Eglon in Judges 3:24contains, in fact, the elements that Post puts in his own tale: a locked room, the mysterious death of an evil figure, and, most of all, a moral balancing of the universe, which is the invariable lesson Abner draws from his detections. After they burst down the door to discover Doomdorf shot in his bed by a gun now hanging back on its hooks on the wall, Randolph suggests that someone must have slipped into the cabin by an unknown means. "'I could better believe it,' replied Abner, 'but for the running of a certain awful law.' 'What law?' said Randolph. 'Is it a statute of Virginia?' 'It is a statute,' replied Abner, 'of an authority somewhat higher. Mark the language of it: He that killeth with the sword must be killed with the sword.'"
The key to Post's technical advance in mystery writing is the way the impossibility of the crime is revealed in the course of its detection. When Abner and Randolph turn back outside to interview Bronson, the preacher calmlyand wronglyconfesses to the murder, explaining how he prayed for Doomdorf's death and arrived to find him dead. "It is no use to talk with the mad old preacher," Randolph declares. "I won't issue a warrant against him. Prayer may be a handy implement to do a murder with, Abner, but it is not a deadly weapon under the statutes of Virginia."
Then they interview Doomdorf's child-like mistress, who also wrongly confesses to the murderincidentally proving that no one but the dead man could have entered the locked cabin while she explains that she killed Doomdorf by making a magical doll to represent him and stabbing it through the heart. "'And now, sir, may I go? . . . The good God will be everywhere now.' It was an awful commentary on the dead manthat this strange half-child believed that all the evil in the world had gone out with him. . . . It was not a faith that either of the two men wished to shatter, and they let her go."
"The Doomdorf Mystery" is a story about getting God wrong: Randolph disbelieves in divine influence on events, the circuit rider Bronson"who preached the invective of Isaiah as though . . . the government of Virginia were the awful theocracy of the Book of Kings"considers prayer a weapon of vengeance, and Doomdorf's mistress pathetically attempts to conjure the divine with sympathetic magic. Only Abner sees the right role of God's providence in human affairs. The vital explanation comes at the end, once Abner demonstrates how Doomdorf's own crime of brewing peach liquor caused his death. "It is a world," Randolph exclaims in the high, Blackstonian language of eighteenth-century Virginia law, "filled with the mysterious joinder of accident." "It is a world," Abner corrects him in the higher language of the Bible, "filled with the mysterious justice of God."
Melville Davisson Post came from a pair of old Virginian families. Daniel Davisson, of Post's mother's family, received a grant of land from George III in 1773 at what is now the heart of Clarksburg, West Virginiathough, despite this royal largess, he joined the revolutionary cause four years later. The Post family was from neighboring Upshur county and also of some note in colonial and revolutionary times.
Both families seem to have avoided the Civil War; though slaveholders, they seemlike many over the mountains from the rest of Virginiato have felt alienated from the state government in Richmond and to have sympathies with the North. The correct date for Melville Davisson Post's birth is April 19, 1869, according to the only full-length study of his work and life, Charles A. Norton's Melville Davisson Post: Man of Many Mysteries. After a typical wealthy boy's rural upbringing, he enrolled at the University of West Virginia in Morgantown in 1886, returning to take his law degree in 1892.
That same year, having obtained through his father a chance to speak at the state convention, he was selected as one of the Democratic party's electors in the national presidential election. (He was subsequently chosen by the Electoral College to serve as its secretary, the youngest person ever to hold the position.) But upon his return home, perhaps feeling that he was rising too fast, the West Virginia party chairman rejected him for a political run, and he settled down to practice law in Wheeling.
He was not an immediate success. In his ample free time, he began to write a peculiar set of mystery stories called The Strange Schemes of Randolph Mason, inverted tales in which a lawyer advises his clients on how to commit crimes and avoid punishment. A second collection followed in 1897, entitled The Man of Last Resort, or The Clients of Randolph Mason.
As his law practice improved, he was unable to complete his third book, a short novel called Dwellers in the Hills until 1901. Based on his experiences as a child, the novel tells the story of three young West Virginians who take on a contract to drive a herd of cattle across the state in a limited amount of time. The Dwellers in the Hills is Post's only successful novel and remains worth readingthough overpraised by Norton as "a minor classic of American literature."
In 1903 Post married Ann Schoolfield from a prominent Roanoke, Virginia, family. But the great change of Post's life came in 1906 when their only child, a son, died at the age of eighteen months. Post withdrew from the practice of law and the social life of upper-class West Virginia, and, after European travel with his wife, devoted himself entirely to writing. He wrote a third volume of Randolph Mason stories, a poor novel called The Gilded Chair, and a torrent of magazine articles that would quickly make him the highest-paid magazine writer in America. On June 3, 1911, the Saturday Evening Post published the first of the Uncle Abner stories.
After Ann Post's death in 1919, he began to concentrate more on books than magazine stories and published several collections of mysteries involving new detectives: The Sleuth of St. James's Square (with a Scotland Yard detective named Sir Henry Marquis), Monsieur Jonquelle, Prefect of Police of Paris, Walker of the Secret Service, and The Silent Witness (the best of these collections, set back in the West Virginia hills with a lawyer, Colonel Braxton, as his detective). Post also published during the 1920s a pair of very peculiar books: The Mountain Schoolteacher, an allegory of the life of Christ, and The Revolt of the Birds, an allegory of something that no one has ever managed to discern. Early in June 1930, he fainted while horseback riding and hurt himself badly in the fall. On June 23, he died and is buried in Clarksburg beside his wife and infant son.
There is a fine volume to be made of the best mystery stories selected from the Randolph Mason, Sir Henry Marquis, Monsieur Jonquelle, Walker, and Colonel Braxton books. Dwellers in the Hills belongs back in print, as does the strange little Passion allegory, The Mountain Schoolteacher. But Post's reputation finally stands on the Uncle Abner stories, primarily because they are the only works in which he achieved a perfection of tonethe ideal matching of his narration to his material.
"The man was a by-word in the hills; mean and narrow, with an economy past belief," Post describes a miser in the Uncle Abner story "The Hidden Law." "He cultivated his fields to the very door, and set his fences out into the road, and he extracted from those about him every tithe of service. He had worked his son until the boy had finally run away across the mountains. He had driven his daughter to the makeshifts of the first patriarchal peoplesoap from ashes, linen from hemp, and the wheel and the loom for the frock upon her limbs."
The villain in "The Wrong Hand," Post writes, "was a hunchback, who sat his great roan as though he were a spider in the saddle. He had been married more than once; but one wife had gone mad, and my Uncle Abner's drovers had found the other on a summer morning swinging to the limb of a great elm that stood before the door, a bridle-rein knotted around her throat and her bare feet scattering the yellow pollen of the ragweed."
The trick of such prose is its adult narrator recollecting events from his childhoodsometimes with the reactions of a child who hero-worships his uncle, sometimes with the reactions of an adult who now sees the motives he did not grasp as a child. And the result is a toneprecisely circumstantial and yet somehow simultaneously mythicalthat William Faulkner seized upon when he came to write his own mystery stories of a man recollecting from boyhood the adventures of his Uncle Gavin in Knight's Gambit: "Anselm Holland came to Jefferson many years ago," Faulkner's first Uncle Gavin story, the 1930 "Smoke," begins. "Where from, no one knew. But he was young then and a man of parts, or of presence at least, because within three years he had married the only daughter of a man who owned two thousand acres of some of the best land in the county."
Both Faulkner and Post saw that the mystery story wants to form strong moral judgments, butlacking the biblical center for his storiesFaulkner could never find a way to use that superb narrating voice to express such judgments. Indeed, the weak, diffident moralism of the final lines in the best of the Uncle Gavin stories, "An Error in Chemistry," suggests why Faulkner abandoned the genre.
Post had no such diffidence. "Like every man under a single dominating passion, he grew in suspicion and in fear," the narrator says of the miser in "The Hidden Law." "We must not press the earth too hard. . . . We must not gather up every head of wheat. . . . It was the oldest belief. The first men poured a little wine out when they drank. . . . What did they know that they did this? Life was hard then; men saved all they could. There was some terrible experience behind this custom, some experience that appalled and stamped the race with a lesson."
You could make an anthology of such lines from Post. "My child," Abner says to the niece he has saved from the evil consequences of a well-intentioned lie, "there is always one reason, if no other, why good people must not undertake to work with a tool of the devil, and that reason is because they handle it so badly."
"I have read St. Paul's epistle on charity," Abner at his most Calvinist says to a sheriff he has caught committing fraud, "and, after long reflection, I am persuaded that there exists a greater thing than charitya thing of more value to the human family. . . . Do you know what thing I mean, Smallwood? I will tell you. It is Justice." "I am in no humor to hear a sermon," the sheriff complains. "Those who need a sermon," Abner dryly responds, "are rarely in the humor to hear it."
In none of his other collections of detective fiction did Post pull off such lines. His success with the Uncle Abner stories seems to derive from finding unique characters for the detective and his foiland fortuitously joining them with the right narrative tone and a powerful logic for the structure of the stories.
G.K. Chesterton remains the master of structural logic in detective stories. He would form an idea for a storyan idea for the logic of the story, rather than the detective's method of solution or the detective's force of characterand then write an entire collection of stories that used the same logic. "The Blue Cross," the first Father Brown story, for instance, consists of a naive priest who prevents a crime primarily because long practice in the confessional has given a much more profound insight into human evil than the more worldly criminals or policemen could ever have. And, once having written such a story, Chesterton went on to create an entire set of tales with the same basic structure. In the case of The Innocence of Father Brown, the device didn't pall. But to read other collections of Chesterton's storiesThe Paradoxes of Mr. Pond, Four Faultless Felons, The Man Who Knew Too Muchis to discover a rapid falling off from the initial, pattern-setting tale. Indeed, The Club of Queer Trades has an opening story so tremendous that hardly any reader can remember anything else in the book.
The structural logic Melville Davisson Post used to form the pattern of the Uncle Abner storiesa sort of biblical parallelism, in which either the crime or the detection reproduces a precedent or a principle from the Bibleproves a much more flexible device. Julian Symons, in a survey of mystery literature, pronounced these Uncle Abner tales unintelligible to British readers. That suggests a certain failure of imagination, probably caused by a lack of sympathy for religion on Symons' part: Post consistently describes Abner as Cromwellian, and Cromwell, one recalls, was an Englishman. Certainly Symons would never admit that a similar cultural difference prevented him from enjoying, say, The Laughing Policeman, the best of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlö ö's Swedish mysteries. George Simenon's dozens of books about Inspector Maigret are profoundly French, but that never stopped English readers from appreciating Simenon.
And yet, Symons may nonetheless be on to something, for Post's use of that most English of productions, the King James Bible, does, curiously, allow him to take some profoundly and distinctly American turns. In particular, "Naboth's Vineyard" ends with a scene as moving, to an American, as any in literature. "One hears a good deal about the sovereignty of the people in this republic," the narrator begins. But "I have seen this primal ultimate authority naked at its work."
The template for the story's crime you can find in 1 Kings 21:15, but in Post's version, it involves a judge trying two people for a crime he himself committed. And when at last Uncle Abner solves the mystery, that stern American Calvinist rises in open court and calls upon the judge to step down from the bench. "The authority of the law," he says, "is in the hands of the electors of this county. Will they stand up?"
The extraordinary passage that follows is worth quoting:
I shall never forget what happened then, for I have never in my life seen anything so deliberate and impressive. Slowly, in silence, and without passion, as though they were in a church of God, men began to get up in the courtroom.
Randolph was the first. He was a justice of the peace, vain and pompous, proud of the abilities of an ancestry that he did not inherit. And his superficialities were the annoyance of my Uncle Abner's life. But whatever I may have to say of him hereafter I want to say this thing of him here, that his bigotry and his vanities were builded on the foundations of a man. He stood up as though he stood alone, with no glance about him to see what other men would do. . . .
Hiram Arnold got up, and Rockford, and Armstrong, and Alkire, and Coopman, and Monroe, and Elnathan Stone, and my father, Lewis, and Dayton and Ward, and Madison from beyond the mountains. And it seemed to me that the very hills and valley were standing up.
It was a strange and instructive thing to see. The loud-mouthed and the reckless were in that courtroom, men who would have shouted in a political convention, or run howling with a mob, but they were not the persons who stood up when Abner called upon the authority of the people to appear. Men rose whom one would not have looked to seethe blacksmith, the saddler, and old Asa Divers. And I saw that law and order and all the structure that civilization had builded up, rested on the sense of justice that certain men carried in their breasts, and that those who possessed it not, in the crisis of necessity, did not count.
Father Donovan stood up; he had a little flock beyond the valley river, and he was as poor, and almost as humble, as his Master, but he was not afraid; and Bronson, who preached Calvin, and Adam Rider, who traveled a Methodist circuit. No one of them believed in what the other taught; but they all believed in justice, and when the line was drawn, there was but one side for them all.
The last man up was Nathaniel Davisson, but the reason was that he was very old, and he had to wait for his sons to help him. He had been time and again in the Assembly of Virginia, at a time when only a gentleman and landowner could sit there. He was a just man, and honorable and unafraid.
How could we let such work pass out of print? In the midst of the American boom of detective volumeswith bookstores stocking them by the thousands and libraries shelving them row after rowwe need a revival of Melville Davisson Post and his tales of Uncle Abner, master of mysteries.