August 20, 2011


America's Greatest Mystery Writer (Joseph Bottum, May 1, 2007, First Things)

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.

Ellery Queen certainly thought so, calling the stories "an out-of-this-world target for future detective-story writers." In Cargoes for Crusoes, a failed attempt back in 1924 to teach literary critics about the quality of the fiction that was appearing in popular magazines, Grant Overton called the publication of Post's "The Doomdorf Mystery" a major literary event. In a later survey of the genre--the 1941 Murder for Pleasure, a book that succeeded where Overton's had failed, convincing critics to take mysteries more seriously as literature--Howard Haycraft declared that Uncle Abner was, after Edgar Allan Poe's Arsène Dupin, "the greatest American contribution" to the cast of fictional detectives. When William Faulkner, discouraged by slow sales of his highbrow fiction, tried his hand at thrillers, Post was the model to which he turned.

And yet, high as Post's tales rank in general mystery fiction, they stand at the very top of the subgenre of religious mysteries. In the deliberate tone of the stories and the matching of the writing's pitch to its subject, in the uniting of the religious element with the detective's action and the sense of good's battle against evil in the solution of a crime, only G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown belongs beside Melville Davisson Post's Uncle Abner.

The stories starring Uncle Abner are hard to find. When Post brought eighteen of them out as Uncle Abner: Master of Mysteries in 1918, the volume stayed in print for almost twenty years--and then seemed suddenly and mysteriously to disappear, despite the praise it continued to receive from discerning critics like Haycraft. A 1962 reprint with an introduction by Anthony Boucher made little impression before slipping away. A University of California volume from the 1970s, long ago exhausted, is the only complete edition, adding the four magazine tales Post wrote after 1918. A partial collection in Dover Press' mystery reprint series is out of stock, with no apparent plans for republishing.

Posted by at August 20, 2011 5:45 AM

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