The Magazine

Melville Davisson Post

America's greatest mystery writer

Jul 31, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 43 • By J. BOTTUM
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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."