Uncle Abner, Master of Mysteries, Melville Davisson Post’s 1909 short story collection, is one of the classics of American detective fiction.
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 very 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-Civil 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.”
Father 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.
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.
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?
Why, we want to know, is Uncle Abner great?
Allow me to be profane.
Profanity is the only sane response to Uncle Abner.