Thursday, April 5, 2018

A West Virginia author

At CrimeReads I happened across an essay, "Mystery's First Great Historian," about Howard Haycraft, author of, among other things, Murder for Pleasure (1941) and editor of The Art of the Mystery Story (1946). Browsing through the former (I own both) I came across Melville Davisson Post, author of the Uncle Abner short stories about which I have posted before. Post lived near Lost Creek, West Virginia, and so I expect he was acquainted with relatives of mine. Some of what Haycraft wrote about Melville Davisson Post:
Melville Davisson Post
Melville Davisson Post (1871-1930) was born near Clarksburg, West Virginia. He worked on his father's farm, attended rural schools, and received a degree in law from West Virginia University in 1892. Several years spent in the practice of criminal and corporation law in his native state gave him the background for The Strange Schemes of Randolph Mason (1896), a volume of short stories dealing with an unscrupulous lawyer who used his knowledge of legal loopholes to defeat justice. The book created something of a furor, moralists objecting that it gave too much advice to criminals. Post retorted in the preface to a sequel, The Man of Last Resort (1897), that nothing but good could come of exposing the law's defects. ....

The MASON stories qualify as detection only in an oblique sense, if at all. But there is no doubt that they helped to pave the way in Post's mind for UNCLE ABNER, whose sleuthing is of the purest ray. A rockhewn Virginia squire of the Jeffersonian era, whose position as protector of the innocent and righter of wrongs in his mountain community compelled him to turn detective with some of the most convincing results known to the short story form, UNCLE ABNER (who never appeared in a novel) had a long career in the popular magazines, beginning in 1911. The book collection of the tales, Uncle Abner: Master of Mysteries, did not appear until 1918, but has been in print continuously ever since. ....

The ABNER stories are still read and re-read after more than a quarter-century less for the intensive plots of which their author was so proud—strikingly original in their time but mostly hackneyed by imitation to-day—than for the difficult-to-define quality that separates the sheep from the goats in any form of literature: in Post's case, as nearly as can be expressed, his richly sentient realization of character, place, and mood. ....

After the success of his early tales, Post abandoned the legal profession entirely for literature. The story of his later life is principally synonymous with his writing career, though he traveled extensively abroad and was active in the councils of the Democratic party at home. He fell from a horse at the age of fifty-nine and died two weeks later at his West Virginia home. ....

...ABNER'S detection in the final analysis nearly always hinges on character. It is his judgment of men's souls that leads him to expect and therefore to find and interpret the evidence, where lesser minds...see naught.

No reader can call himself connoisseur who does not know UNCLE ABNER forward and backward. His four-square pioneer ruggedness looms as a veritable monument in the literature. .... (Howard Haycraft, Murder for Pleasure: The Life and Times of the Detective Story, 1941, pp. 94-97)
Uncle Abner, Master of Mysteries by Melville Davisson Post - Free eBook can be read online or downloaded at the link.