Bulls Like Death

Out cameDowning Last Trumpet 2 the matador,
Who must have been potted or
Slightly insane, but who looked rather bored.
Then the picadors of course,
Each one on his horse,
I shouted “Olé” ev’ry time one was gored.

The moment had come,
I swallowed my gum,
We knew there’d be blood on the sand pretty soon.
The crowd held its breath,
Hoping that death
Would brighten an otherwise dull afternoon.

– Tom Lehrer, “In Old Mexico”

 

Speaking of dull afternoons, it’s surprising just how dull one spent with Todd Downing can be. And The Last Trumpet is a siesta of a book.

The guy was a gay, part-Choctaw, fan of John Dickson Carr and Agatha Christie, who set his detective stories in Mexico. But he wasn’t a lively writer; he had no apparent sense of humor; his storytelling meanders; and his plot construction is loose. (Carr and Christie’s books were tight – and so was JDC himself!)

To his credit, the basic premise is good. SomeoDowning Last Trumpet.jpgne is removing the witnesses to a railway crash—but why were all the victims left-handed? And why did the crimes take place at Christmas? This is a classic Ellery Queen set-up: what is the hidden pattern?  Downing plays fair; the solution is based on a proper “ladder of clues”.

So he obviously had some idea of what to put in a detective story.

Only little idea of how to tell it.

Halfway down the first page, Downing gives us this beauty. “The echo took a long, long time to die in the crooked shimmer of heat which rose from the arena toward the hard blue sky and the dazzling white clouds wandering in from the Gulf of Mexico.”

That sentence, reader, is a brick wall. You back out of your driveway, you turn into the street, you start to accelerate – and collide with three sentences jammed into one, without a comma in sight.

You pick yourself up, feeling slightly shaken, but no bones broken.

And then the prose turns purple.

“It rang in the girl’s ears, and she thought: It’s a tiny live thing that wants to escape, but can’t! She had a momentary nightmarish sensation of being trapped there too – in an inverted glass bowl which was lined by tier upon tier of dark, strange faces and clamped down tightly upon a round floor of yellow sand. Sand that was furrowed deeply and splotched by damp red stains.”

Clunkety-clunk goes Downing’s prose. Elsewhere, the writing is flaccid – although I doubt Downing was when he wrbullfighting.jpgote this:

“The Spanish say that the heart of a bullfight crowd is a woman’s heart, captivated by color and pomp and more than all else by blatant maleness. Campos must have known this, for he moved his legs so that the sunlight played upon his tights and loins and revealed the rippling of the muscles under the tight trousers. The amphitheater grew still again, filled with the orgiastic tremor of heavy breathing and hot, tense bodies perspiring under the sun.”

Campos the tight-trousered matador is about to become shish kebab – penetrated by that most potent and masculine of creatures, a bull. It doesn’t take Krafft-Ebbing or Havelock Ellis to spot a subtext.

It’s astonishing how gay this book is. In 1937. A sadistic cripple is in a curious relationship with his blond Viking right-hand man.  The cripple describes how he saw the Viking whip a peon:

“What a lusty young stallion he was that morning! Standing stiff-legged and solid in flaring riding-breeches, brand new-boots and polished spurs. It was dank and cool in that adobe room. But his face gleamed with sweat. For he had been working hard and long. One whip had come to pieces during the preliminaries. He was giving himself a few capricious moments with the left hand as he got the feel of a new one. Exploring with the beaded tip and testing his knowledge of anatomy—”

Hugh Rennert, Downing’s detective, flirts with his partner, Sheriff Peter Bounty: “I’d like to have you in either event.  You’re a bachelor, too, aren’t you?”

And he solves the case by checking out his partner’s muscled, blue serge-clad ass.

On another note, as early as 1937, characters say that solar heat will replace fossil fuels. Downing mentions C.G. Abbott’s demonstration of a ½ hp solar-powered engine at an International Power Conference in Washington, D.C. in 1936. Nearly eighty years later, and we’re still largely reliant on oil, coal and gas.

No Hay

If this were a tour, I’d be asking for my money back!

I was hoping for a murder mystery that took me through Mexico, from Mexico City down Downing Murder on Tour.jpgthrough Oaxaca, Puebla, Palenque, Campeche, Merida, and Playa del Carmen, to Chichen Itza.

One wonders what Todd Downing’s real life tours were like.

He takes us to Mexico City – and shows us its hotels. Xochimilco chalupa.jpgSure, we go to a few of the main sights – the Alameda, Teotihuacan and Sanborn’s – but when he goes to Xochimilco, he doesn’t describe what the “flower-decked chalupa” looks like.

It’s telling that although the story is set around the famous Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), he doesn’t describe the parade. This is the same parade that you would have seen in the trailer for the latest James Bond film, SPECTRE, and which inspired the computer game Grim Fandango.

Day of the dead.jpg

Hugh Rennert, Downing’s bland customs agent detective, only joins the “guests” at the end of the tour. One of them strangled a Customs agent in San Antonio, Texas. When the other guests go to Cuernavaca and Taxco, Rennert stays in the hotel to search their rooms. As another guest says, “You missed the most wonderful trip, dearie!”

There are no important Mexican characters. The only Mexicans with speaking parts are a police chief (in only one chapter) and unnamed hotel staff, while the only Spanish character is the enigmatic, dishonest Argudin.

Anyone expecting the immediacy of Gerald Durrell or Ian Fleming will be sorely disappointed. Downing doesn’t convey a sense of Mexico in the ’30s the way Gladys Mitchell did Greece or Agatha Christie did Egypt or Jordan – let alone Graham Greene or Tennessee Williams.

We get facts about Mexico, but little sense of Mexico itself. What did Mexico City smell like? What does the food taste like? What about the light, the heat, the colors, the Mexico poster 2.jpggreenery, the flowers, the crowds? More concrete sensory detail, please, Mr Downing!

And what a waste! This is Mexico! A country where the Aztecs, the Olmecs, the Toltecs and the Maya once lived! A country whose capital is one of the biggest cities in the world – with museums, temples, and cathedrals! In the 1930s alone, National Geographic ran articles on Mexico City as North America’s oldest metropolis (1930); an archaeological dig that unearthed Zapotec and Mixtec artefacts (1932); ChapultTezcatlipoca.jpgepec Park, and a journey by donkey through Mexico disguised as peasants (1934); the flying Otomi Indians, the Aztec Empire (1937); the Maya Empire, and the Rio Coatlicue.jpgGrande (1939).

Then there’s the Mexico of sensational fiction. Think of the opportunities a detective story writer could have with Mexico! Victims stabbed with obsidian sacrificial knives; pyramids with blood running down the stairs from the altar; a victim found dead in front of the polished mirror of Tezcatlipoca; archaeologists killed off one by one by the curse of Coatlicue…

Any of these would have been fertile material for a detective story.

Downing gives us a US Customs agent strangled with a pair of black silk stockings in a hotel in San Antonio, Texas, USA, and an undercover man out to catch the murderer.

It’s pleasing that Downing is against the appropriation by other countries of Mexico’s archaeological heritage.

However, he shoots himself in the foot from the start. Since Rennert is undercover, he can’t detect. He has to pretend to be a tourist, and can only ask questions in normal conversation. There is no in-depth investigation of the crime scenes, as there are in Carr or Queen. Nevertheless, Downing plays fair. The solution is hardly earth-shattering; it lacks ingenuity and inspiration, but the clues are there throughout the novel – and those listed on p. 179 I really should have spotted.

Still, this is Downing’s first novel. The Cat Screams, Vultures in the Sky and The Last Trumpet are supposed to be excellent.

Buon compleanno, Maestro!

This should have gone up on Monday.

Since the birthday boy only has his birthday every four years, I’m not fussed!

Gioachino Rossini turned fifty-six on Monday. Not bad for a man born in 1792.

People born on a leap year are lucky; they age four times as slowly as the rest of us! And Rossini’s music has never aged. There was a time in his thirties when his music seemed to have vanished – but since his fortieth birthday, his music has taken on a new life.

A wise man once said that life’s infallible pick-me-ups were champagne, the works of P.G. Wodehouse, and the operas of Rossini. He was right.

Rossini’s music is wonderful. It’s exhilarating. It’s full of joy and life. It’s music which makes you want to stand up and cheer, and hug everyone around you. It’s also incredibly beautiful.

Rossini’s most famous works are a string of brilliant comic operas – Il barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville), L’italiana in Algeri, and La Cenerentola, plus the rousing overture to Guillaume Tell. But that list ignores the innovative, powerful serious operas he wrote, particularly those at Naples: Ermione, Maometto II, Semiramide, Mosè, La donna del lago, and Otello.

And if anyone doubts opera has anything to do with adventure, crime or mystery, I refer

them to what Anthony Boucher said in 1941. Besides, excitement is guaranteed in the pieces below!

In honour of l’illustrissimo signore, without further ado…

La gazza ladra (Milan, 1817)

 

Il viaggio a Reims (Paris, 1825)

 

L’italiana in Algeri (Venice, 1813)

 

Ricciardo e Zoraide (Naples, 1818)

La Cenerentola (Rome, 1817)

 

Matilde di Shabran (Rome, 1821)

Maometto II (Naples, 1820)

 

Tancredi (Venice, 1813)

 

Otello (Naples, 1816)

 

Armida (Naples, 1817)

 

Mosè (Naples, 1818)

 

Ermione (Naples, 1819)

 

La donna del lago (Naples, 1819)

 

Bianca e Falliero (Milan, 1819)

 

Zelmira (Naples, 1822)

 

Semiramide (Venice, 1823)

 

Guillaume Tell (Paris, 1829)

Murders in Pastiche – 2

Murder in the Mummy Case (K.K. Beck)

The chief merit of this book is that it can be read in an hour and a half. While reading Beck Mummy CaseAnderson’s Case of the Bloodstained Egg Cosy was like chewing on a cement pudding, this is light to the point of insubstantiality – not a soufflé but a froth.

It’s yet another pastiche, this time set in 1920s California rather than an English country house, and feels like the sort of mystery B-movie churned out by 20th Century Fox, Columbia or Tiffany Pictures in the 1930s. Well below the level of the Philo Vance films, and more likely to feature Reginald du Kink.

The heroine, narrator and detective is Iris Cooper, a student who stays at the house of a young EDagger of Amon Ra.pnggyptologist to whom she is attracted. Anyone who expects something like the wonderful Sierra game The Dagger of Amon-Ra – also set in the 1920s and involving Egyptology – will be disappointed. There’s a séance, and a corpse found in a sarcophagus, but no atmosphere and no archaeology.

The tone is “cosy”. “Should I wear the white tulle and pearls,” Iris wonders on the first night, “or start out with the Nile-green moire silk right off?” Everything (except for the murder) is pretty or delicate or charming.

There was a bed with a satin eiderdown in periwinkle blue and a collection of delicate French Provincial furniture and a white bowl of lilacs. At the diamond-paned windows was an inviting window seat framed by chintz draperies in a rose pattern. My suitcases had been unpacked; my dresses hung in a cedar-lined coset, and my other things were neatly folded in a highboy with gilt pulls.

The book’s saving grace is its mild satire. Beck is not a fan of business or capitalism. There’s a grim joke about investing in the Stock Market (rather than in Palm Springs) and how everything will be wonderful when Hoover comes to power—shortly before the 1929 crash.

The wealthy family are indolent. The young Egyptologist lives off his mother, and is surprised by his heroine’s suggestion that he fund the expedition himself rather than sponge off his mother. The heroine chooses the working class journalist over the upper crust Egyptologist.

Characters are prepared to murder for social respectability. The butler is a wealthy man who owns a night club. The aunt and her fiancé – a Russian grand duke – use their money to set up a tea shop; Iris believes that losing his social position and working as a major-domo gave him more empathy for and understanding of the working class.

The last three reviews have been negative.  Whoa, man, those vibes!   Like my chakras are unaligned.

Ellery Queen will be coming this weekend.

In the meantime, opera.

Murders in Pastiche – 1

The Affair of the Blood Stained Egg Cosy (James Anderson)

A country house party is used as a cover for a diplomatic meeting; one of the diplomats is Anderson Egg Cosy.jpgshot; and another guest could be a jewel thief, “the Wraith”.

This is set in the 1930s – and was written half a century later.

It seems to be a pastiche of Agatha Christie, but the only Christie it’s pastiching is The Secret of Chimneys, an entertaining but unrepresentative book. Chimneys is Christie’s gleeful parody of the E. Phillips Oppenheim country house party, with diplomats and spies galore, the sinister organization of the Red Hand, and the murder of the Crown Prince of Herzoslovakia (no doubt somewhere near Ruritania).

Although Anderson skilfully imitates Christie’s simple but effective character sketches, tells the story through dialogue, and the heroine is one of Christie’s poor but plucky girls in a ghastly job (like Midge Hardcastle, Jane Grey and Victoria Jones), the book lacks Christie’s lightness and pace.

Much of the book is plodding and dull, particularly Chapter 24 with its ‘Who was where when?’. The plot is complicated, and far too much so to follow easily. The murderer’s confession is long winded and hyper elaborate, and the following explanation laborious. One could claim that its hypertrophic complexity is a parody of Golden Age plots, but Golden Age plots were less mechanical. The solution is a) obvious and b) pins the crime on the least likely person – a gambit Christie used twice. The Christie murderer is nearly always a prominent character whom the reader does not consider a suspect, rather than the type Anderson makes the murderer.

What, though, is the point of this book?

The pastiche is neither clever, funny nor accurate. Anderson contributes to a false impression of the genre: that Golden Age detective stories were set in country houses. Few Golden Age detective stories were set in country houses. Contemporary critics felt that the country house was hackneyed, and that Ngaio Marsh’s use of it in Death and the Dancing Footman was beneath her.Marsh - Dancing Footman.jpg

When detective writers did set their books in country houses, they had a hook – something intriguing that makes the reader want to read – and a brilliant high concept solution. In Marsh’s novel, the country house is the scene of a dramatic experiment; all of the guests have reason to hate at least one other guest, and the Mephistophelian host delights in prodding his guests with pins and watching them jump. An unadorned country house mystery of the kind Anderson offers simply doesn’t cut the mustard.

The detective story was more sophisticated, more modern, than the dull country house. Writers had the exciting contemporary world to explore. Think of Van Dine’s art collectors, Egyptologists, stockbrokers and physicists; Ellery Queen’s theatres, department stores and hospitals; or Helen McCloy’s psychologists, journalists, publishers, actors and designers. Christie herself, the writer most associated with country houses and villages, used the large country house murder once (as opposed to an upper middle class family murder); she set most of her books abroad – in the Middle East, in Egypt, on the Continent, on trains and planes and boats – or in London.

For all that characters include aristocrats, politicians and foreign diplomats, the story takes place in an political and historical vacuum. Anderson’s book doesn’t draw on his experience of anything other than reading detective stories and LeRoy Panek. His book does not reflect life, and has little to say about the world.

Uncle Abner

Uncle Abner, Master of Mysteries, Melville Davisson Post’s 1909 short story collection, is one of the classics of American detective fiction.Post Uncle Abner

Some books are classics because they are pioneering works that later writers use as models: Poe’s Dupin stories.  Some books are classics because they push the limits of what the genre can do: Agatha Christie’s Murder of Roger Ackroyd or Anthony Berkeley’s Poisoned Chocolates Case.  Other books are classics because they are textbook examples of the genre at its best: Christianna Brand’s Green for Danger.

And some books raise the question of why they’re classics at all.  Uncle Abner falls squarely into this last class.

Ellery Queen called it

second only to Poe’s Tales among all the books of detective short stories written by American authors. This statement is made dogmatically and without reservation: a cold-blooded and calculated critical opinion which we believe will be as true in the year 2000 as we wholeheartedly believe it to be true today. [Uncle Abner, Poe’s Tales, Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories and Chesterton’s Father Brown stories] are the finest in their field – the crème du crime. They are an out-of-this-world target for future detective story writers to take shots at – but it will be like throwing pebbles at the pyramids.

Howard Haycraft thought Uncle Abner was “the greatest American contribution” to the list of fictional detectives since Poe’s Auguste Dupin.

And John Dickson Carr said that Post’s “Straw Man” gave him the same “joyous shock when Father Brown unmasked the Invisible Man, … or Sherlock Holmes, in an unforgettable moment, swept the disguise from the Man with the Twisted Lip”.

Yea, the prophets have spoken.  They have proclaimed the excellence of Uncle Abner unto all the land.  And lo, there was much rejoicing.

And from this corner, the Bronx cheer of one about to lob a volley of pebbles at Kheops and Khufu.

Are they great detective stories?  Nope.  The best are “A Twilight Adventure”, which I’ll discuss below; and “The Treasure Hunter”, which reminded me fondly of better stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  “The Straw Man” has some good ideas about blindness, but is Melville_Postvery obvious.  (How old was JDC when he read it?)  The much anthologized “Doomdorf Mystery” has some fine rhetoric and a solution cribbed, Mike Grost says, from M. McDonnell Bodkin’s Paul Beck, the Rule of Thumb Detective (1907).

The rest are lousy.  Post doesn’t play fair.  He gives the solution before the clues.  Sure, Uncle Abner has evidence to prove his case, but it’s not shared with the reader.  Still, it’s easy to spot the villain; the murderer is anyone Abner talks to who isn’t a recurring character.

But these are minor problems.

The book’s biggest problem is that its ideology is utterly abhorrent, and its hero may be the most unlikeable in all detective fiction.  There are plenty of sleuths who are grouchy, peevish, or murderous – I am not fond of Nero Wolfe – but I have seldom come across a sleuth as morally bankrupt as Uncle Abner.

Uncle Abner is a militant Christian Fundamentalist landowner in pre-CivMelville-Davisson-Postil War Virginia.  He is compared to an Old Testament prophet or Oliver Cromwell.  He believes in justice (read: hanging) rather than charity, and in the Protestant work ethic.  “Labor and God’s Book would save the world; they were two wings that a man could get his soul to Heaven on.”

Uncle Abner has been compared to Chesterton’s Father Brown.  Their creators were both religious, but otherwise had nothing in common.  Father Brown is a rational man of faith who sees through superstition and supposed miracles; Uncle Abner believes that witches exist because the Bible says so.

Uncle Abner takes the Puritan line that reason is inadequate.

“Sir,” (he says in “The Straw Man”) “I cannot think of God depending on a thing so crude as reason. If one reflects upon it, I think one will immediately see that reason is a quality exclusively peculiar to the human mind. It is a thing that God could never, by any chance, require. Reason is the method by which those who do not know the truth, step by step, finally discover it.”

GKCFather Brown defends reason.  In the very first story in which the little priest appears, “The Blue Cross”, he knows that a priest is an impostor because he rejects reason.

“Ah, yes, these modern infidels appeal to their reason; but who can look at those millions of worlds and not feel that there may well be wonderful universes above us where reason is utterly unreasonable?”

“No,” said the other priest; “reason is always reasonable, even in the last limbo, in the lost borderland of things. I know that people charge the Church with lowering reason, but it is just the other way. Alone on earth, the Church makes reason really supreme. Alone on earth, the Church affirms that God himself is bound by reason.”

Chesterton was firmly engaged with the twentieth century, for all his romanticizing of the Middle Ages.  He set his detective stories in the present day, and used the genre to comment on topical issues or contemporary fads and philosophies.

Post looks backwards to the antebellum rural past.

Which in Virginia’s case means slavery.

slave-auction-virginia.jpg

And Uncle Abner sees nothing wrong with slavery.

In fact, slaves, Post tells us, were happy being slaves, and slaves were honored members of the household.

Here’s Mammy Liza in “The Devil’s Tools”:

The old woman sat beyond him, straight as a rod in her chair, her black silk dress smoothed into straight folds, her white cap prim and immaculate, her square-rimmed spectacles on her nose, and her hands in her lap. If there was royal blood on the Congo, she carried it in her veins, for her dignity was real. And there I think she held Randolph back from any definite accusation. He advanced with specious and sententious innuendoes and arguments, a priori and conclusion post hoc ergo propter hoc to inclose her as the guilty agent. But from the commanding position of a blameless life, she did not see it, and he could not make her see it. She regarded this conference as that of two important persons in convention assembled,-a meeting together of the heads of the House of Randolph to consider a certain matter touching its goods and its honour. And, for all his efforts, he could not dislodge her from the serenity of that position.

“I’s done had all the n*****s up before me, an’ I’s ravaged ‘em an’ searchified ’em.” Her mouth tightened with the savage memory. “I knows ‘em! I knows ‘em all-mopin’ n*****s, an’ mealy mouthed n*****s, an’ shoutin’ n*****s, an’ cussin’ n*****s, an’ I knows all their carryin’s-on, an’ all their underhan’ oneryness, an’ all their low-down contraptions.   An’ they knows I knows it.” She paused and lifted a long, black finger.

“They fools Miss Betty, an’ they fools you, Mars Ran, but they don’t fool Mammy Liza.”

She replaced her hands together primly in the lap of her silk dress and continued in a confidential tone.

“’Course we knows n*****s steals, but they steals eatables, an’ nobody pays any ’tention to that. Your Grandpa never did, nor your pap, nor us. You can’t be too hard on n*****s, jist as you can’t be too easy on ’em. If you’s too hard, they gits down in the mouth, an’ if you’s too easy they takes the place. A down in the mouth n***** is always a wuthless n*****, an’ a biggity n***** is a ’bomination!”

Another story turns on whether a woman is a dead man’s adopted daughter or his slave.  Uncle Abner and his cronies are quite comfortable discussing whether she’s free or property, and oblivious to the bigger issue of whether a human being should even be another’s property.

slaveauction

Elsewhere, Post describes abolitionists as “madmen” and “fanatics”.

The whole land was wrought up to the highest tension. Men were beginning to hold their properties and their lives as of little account in this tremendous issue. The country was ready to flare up in a war, and to fire it the life of one man would be nothing. A thousand madmen were ready to make that sacrifice of life. That a fanatic would shoot himself in Virginia with the idea that the slave owners would be charged by the country with his murder and so the war brought on, was not a thing improbable in that day’s extremity of passion. To the madman it would be only the slight sacrifice of his life for the immortal gain of a holy war.

(“The Edge of the Shadow”)

That’s right – fifty years after the Civil War settled that question, Post is defending slavery.  No doubt Uncle Abner would find something in the Bible to justify slavery.  Ephesians 6:5, Titus 2:9, or Genesis 9:25:27, maybe. Slavery is an institution ordained by God, which let no man put asunder.

Far and away the best story in the book is “A Twilight Adventure”, which condemns mob law and lynching, ridicules cases based purely on circumstantial evidence, and has a clever O. Henryish twist in the tale.

However, Post also tells us that if you don’t think whites were justified in ruthlessly killing Indians, boy, then you’re a pansy.

Certain historians have written severely of these men and their ruthless methods, and prattled of humane warfare; but they wrote nursing their soft spines in the security of a civilization which these men’s hands had builded, and their words are hollow.

What did progressive, liberal writers like Anthony Boucher and Ellery Queen find to admire in a right wing redneck like Post?  His belief in the rule of the law, perhaps.  The whole community makes the law, and is protected b the law.  The law is the same for all men, and should protect the poor against the rich and powerful.  The authority of the law is vested in the citizens, who can stand up against a corrupt lawmaker.  Violations of the law weaken society.

“Our fathers found out that they could not manage the assassin and the thief when every man undertook to act for himself, so they got together and agreed upon a certain way to do things. Now, we have indorsed what they agreed to, and promised to obey it, and I for one would like to keep my promise.”

The big man’s face was puzzled. Now it cleared.

“Hell!” he said. “You mean the law?”

“Call it what you like,” replied Abner; “it is merely the agreement of everybody to do certain things in a certain way.”

“If men like you and Lemuel Arnold and Nicholas Vance violate the law, lesser men will follow your example, and as you justify your act for security, they will justify theirs for revenge and plunder. And so the law will go to pieces and a lot of weak and innocent people who depend upon it for security will be left unprotected.”

            (“A Twilight Adventure”)

Post, however, was more concerned with upholding the letter of the law and maintaining the social status quo than asking whether the law was good or gave equal rights to the whole community.  In “The Edge of the Shadow”, Uncle Abner says that avoiding disturbances of the peace and punishing people who break it is more important than ending slavery.

“To be fair,” he said, “everywhere in this republic, to enforce the law everywhere, to put down violence, to try every man who takes the law in his own hand, fairly in the courts, and, if he is guilty, punish him without fear or favour, according to the letter of the statute, to keep everywhere a public sentiment of fair dealing, by an administration of justice above all public clamor—in this time of heat, this is our only hope of peace!”

He spoke in his deep, level voice, and the words seemed to be concrete things having dimensions and weight.

“Shall a fanatic who stirs up our slaves to murder,” said Mansfield, “be tried like a gentleman before a jury?”

“Aye, Mansfield,” replied my uncle, “like a gentleman, and before a jury! If the fanatic murders the citizen, I would hang him, and if the citizen murders the fanatic, I would hang him too, without one finger’s weight of difference in the method of procedure. I would show New England that the justice of Virginia is even-eyed. And she would emulate that fairness, and all over the land the law would hold against the unrestraint that is gathering.”

How wonderful!  The law would hold against the unrestraint that would end slavery!  And long live the death penalty!

“Bad laws,” as a wise man once said, “are made to be broken.”

Uncle Abner the greatest American contribution to the list of detectives?  Greater than Ellery Queen, Dr Gideon Fell or Sir Henry Merrivale?  Greater than the cosmopolitan Philo Vance, who appreciated African art as much as he did Asian art or the European Old Masters?  Greater than Charlie Chan?  Forget the yellowface version from the movies; Earl Derr Biggers expressly created Chan to be a positive Chinese character, at a time when Chinese in mystery stories were invariably slant-eyed criminal masterminds and torturers in opium dens.  Greater than Hildy Withers, Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, Perry Mason or Nero Wolfe?

Pfui.

Why, we want to know, is Uncle Abner great?

God knows.

Allow me to be profane.

Profanity is the only sane response to Uncle Abner.

Haddock Red Sea Sharks 2

Haddock Red Sea Sharks 1