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.

Among his other forgotten virtues, 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 solution -- used in mysteries from R. Austin Freeman's "Dr. Thorndyke" tales of scientific detection in the early 1900s to the Columbo television programs in the 1970s -- is 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 solution -- invented by Poe, raised to its highest pitch in Arthur Conan Doyle's Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and smoothed to a machine-like regularity by Agatha Christie -- is to invert the 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 pass -- a solution to the mystery writer's problem that is now so common we hardly notice how often 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," Post wrote toward the end of his life, that "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. . . . 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 a locked-room puzzle called "The Doomdorf Mystery." Though it must necessarily come close to giving away the mystery's ending, a careful explanation of the story is helpful for understanding the author's method. "The Doomdorf Mystery" tells of Uncle Abner and his brother Randolph -- the local squire and justice of the peace, a supercilious man who makes an admirable Dr. Watson-like foil for Abner's detection -- riding 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 "The Doomdorf Mystery," when Abner and Randolph arrive at their destination, they find a Protestant circuit rider 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 more 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 quotes -- Ehud's assassination of the Moabite king Eglon in Judges 3:24 -- contains elements that Post puts in his own tale: a locked room, the 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 break 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 go back out, Bronson calmly confesses to the murder -- explaining how he prayed for Doomdorf's death and arrived to find him already 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 confesses to the murder -- incidentally 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 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 man -- that 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."

In a certain way, "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 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 his evil peach liquor led directly to 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 was born April 19, 1869, scion of a pair of old Virginia families. Daniel Davisson, Post's maternal ancestor, received a land grant from George III in 1773 at what is now the heart of Clarksburg, West Virginia -- though, despite this royal largess, he joined the Revolutionary cause four years later. The Post family was from neighboring Upshur County and also of note in colonial and revolutionary times. Both families appear to have avoided the Civil War; though slave-holders, they seem -- like many over the mountains -- to have felt alienated from the state government in Richmond and to have had sympathies with the North. According to the only study of the author, Charles A. Norton's Melville Davisson Post: Man of Many Mysteries, Post enrolled at the University of West Virginia in 1887, after a typical wealthy boy's rural upbringing, returning there to take his law degree in 1891.

The next 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 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 congressional run, and he settled down to practice law in Wheeling.

He was not an immediate success. In his ample free time, he wrote The Strange Schemes of Randolph Mason, a peculiar set of inverted mystery 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.

With his law practice improving, he was unable to complete his third book, a novel called Dwellers in the Hills, until 1901. Based on his own experiences, 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. Dwellers in the Hills is Post's only successful novel and remains worth reading -- though slightly 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 West Virginia and, after European travel, devoted himself entirely to writing. A torrent of articles would soon follow, and by the time the Saturday Evening Post published the first of the Uncle Abner stories in June 1911, he was the highest-paid magazine writer in America.

Between Ann Post's death in 1919 and his own after a riding accident in 1930, he concentrated more on books, publishing several collections of mystery stories (involving new detectives). There is a fine volume to be made of the best of these tales. But Post's reputation must finally stand on the Uncle Abner stories, because they are the only works in which he achieved a perfection of tone -- the 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 begins "The Hidden Law." He cultivated his fields to the very door, and set his fences out into the road. . . . He had worked his son until the boy had run away. . . . He had driven his daughter to the makeshifts of the first patriarchal people -- soap from ashes, linen from hemp.

"The man who lived here," he writes in "The Wrong Hand,"

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 bridlerein 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 childhood, sometimes 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 tone -- precisely circumstantial and yet somehow simultaneously mythical -- that William Faulkner seized upon when he came to write his own mysteries of a man recollecting from boyhood the adventures of his uncle, Gavin Stevens, in Knight's Gambit: "Anselm Holland came to Jefferson many years ago," Faulkner's 1930 story "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 strong moral judgments, but -- lacking the biblical center for his stories -- Faulkner could never find a way to use the narrating voice to express such judgments. Indeed, the weak, diffident moralism of the final lines in the best of the Gavin Stevens stories, "An Error in Chemistry," suggests why Faulkner gave up 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. "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 charity -- a 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 foil, and fortuitously joining them with the right narrative tone and a powerful logic for the structure of the stories -- a structure in which either the crime or the detection reproduces a precedent or a principle from the Bible.

Julian Barnes, in a survey of mystery literature, pronounced these Uncle Abner tales "unintelligible" to British readers. That suggests a certain lack of imagination, probably deriving from a failure of sympathy for religion on Barnes's part: Post consistently uses the adjective "Cromwellian" to describe Abner, and Cromwell, as one recalls, was an Englishman. And yet, Barnes may nonetheless be on to something, for Post's use of that most English of productions, the King James Bible, does, curiously, offer the opportunity for him to take some profoundly 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 this story's crime you can find in 1st 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 in full:

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. . . .

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. . . .

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 see -- the blacksmith, the saddler, and old Asa Divers. And I saw that law and order and the structure that civilization 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 a 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 volumes -- with bookstores stocking them by the thousands and libraries shelving them row after row -- we need a revival of Melville Davisson Post and his tales of Uncle Abner, master of mysteries.

J. Bottum is Books & Arts editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.