The Magazine

Melville Davisson Post

America's greatest mystery writer

Jul 31, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 43 • By J. BOTTUM
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There is a case to be made that the Uncle Abner stories -- the twenty-two tales of the Virginia hills written by Melville Davisson Post from 1911 to 1928 -- are 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 to take shots at." In Cargoes for Crusoes, a failed 1924 attempt to teach literary critics about the quality of popular magazine fiction, Grant Overton called the 1914 appearance of Post's "The Doomdorf Mystery" a major literary event. In a later survey of the genre -- the 1941 Murder for Pleasure, a book that succeeded where Overton's had failed in convincing critics to take mysteries more seriously as literature -- Howard Haycraft declared that Uncle Abner was, after Edgar Allan Poe's Dupin, "the greatest American contribution to the form." When William Faulkner, discouraged by slow sales of his highbrow fiction, tried his hand at thrillers, Post was the model to which he turned.

High as Post's stories rank in the broad genre of mystery fiction, however, they stand alone at the 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, not even G. K. Chesterton's Father Brown -- the only arguable rival -- belongs beside Melville Davisson Post's Uncle Abner.

And yet, the stories starring Uncle Abner are extremely 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 years -- and then disappeared, despite the praise it continued to receive from discerning critics. A 1962 reprint edited by Anthony Boucher made little impression before slipping away. A University of California volume from the 1970s, long ago allowed to go out of print, is the only complete edition, adding the four magazine tales Post wrote after 1918. A partial collection from the 1970s in Dover Press's 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 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, intimately familiar to American readers. Indeed, the disappearance of Post's stories from print at least parallels, if it was not caused by, the rapid vanishing of this stock character from Americans' vision of themselves and their history.

By the next year, in "The Riddle," Post had strengthened his character. Uncle Abner, says the narrator, "was one of those austere, deeply religious men who might have followed Cromwell. . . . 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 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 has thickened into an unforced King Jamesian diction. That such work should be unavailable is striking. Where are America's publishers? Where, in particular, are America's religious publishers -- especially 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. That evangelical houses have so far failed to promote Uncle Abner, the stern American Calvinist who is our greatest religious detective, is itself a mystery.