Thursday, August 31, 2017

“Uncle Abner: Master of Mysteries” by Melville Post


A bully is found shot to death, in a locked room bolted from the inside. A boy is entrusted to carry money to pay for cattle, because no one would suspect a boy of having that much money with him. A letter is forged. A sailor, long believed dead, returns home, to claim his inheritance. A former sheriff is suspected of carrying off country revenues. An innocent man is about to be hung by vigilantes. A girl is cheated out of her inheritance. And more.

The 22 stories that comprise Uncle Abner: Master of Mysteries are all set just before the American Civil War. The geography is the mountains of western Virginia, before the war changed the region into the state of West Virginia. The reach of the state government in Richmond barely extends into the mountains, and enforcing law and order is generally left to individual sheriffs and county judges. And to men like Uncle Abner.

Melville Davisson Post (1869-1930), born and raised in West Virginia, created Uncle Abner, one of six fictional detectives populating many of the 230 books written by the author during his lifetime. Of all of Post’s creations, Uncle Abner is the best known and best remembered. The Uncle Abner stories were serialized between 1911 and 1928 in magazine likes The Saturday Evening Post. Numerous critics – then and now – consider these stories to be among the finest mysteries every written.

Melville Davisson Post
Uncle Abner (his last name is never mentioned) is a bear of man, who knows his Bible and quotes it frequently and often with devastating effect. He also knows human nature, and especially the natures of the people of western Virginia. He’s also physically large, his size being useful for bashing in locked doors, for example. He is also not intimated by the often lawless types he meets and knows.

Most of the stories are narrated by Abner’s nephew, Martin, who often accompanies his uncle during his investigations and travels. Martin is no na├»ve child; in this region, children have to grow up quickly. And he observes his uncle closely. (In one story, Martin is also the boy entrusted by his father with serving as a courier for the payment for cattle, and finds himself very close to death.)

The stories of Uncle Abner: Master of Mysteries are a slice of Americana from both the period in which they were written and the period they’re about. And they are still fine mysteries. You may never have met a detective quite like Uncle Abner, but it will be well worth your time to do so.

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Top photograph by Jean Beaufort via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.