Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Master of mysteries

Joseph Bottum writes about the role of religion in mysteries and wonders why the Uncle Abner stories are so unfamiliar:
G.K. Chesterton’s Fr. Brown stories are proof that only the British style of detective fiction can reach to religion—or so, at least, a friend recently claimed. ....

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. ....
Uncle Abner, Master of Mysteries, collecting most of the stories,was published in 1918.

In an earlier essay on the stories Bottum began:
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 between 1911 and 1928—are among the finest mysteries ever written. ....
Later he uses a quotation to describe the character:
“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.”
And, from another story:
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.
An important aspect of the stories:
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 quotes—Ehud’s assassination of the Moabite king Eglon in Judges 3:24—contains, 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. ....
I've always enjoyed these stories [the pictures are from my 1919 reprint of the book]. It is indeed a pity that they are not more familiar.

Source: First Things: America's Best Mystery Writer

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