Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Uncle Abner Mysteries, by Melville Davisson Post


This book answers the question "What if Sherlock Holmes were a cowboy?"

The narrator, now grown, recalls tagging along with his Uncle Abner as he solved various 'mysteries' that utterly befuddled the inhabitants of a rural community in western Virginia (eventually West Virginia) at the turn of the nineteenth century. With the state government all but inaccessible across the Alleghenies, it falls to the rather unimaginative justice of the peace to be the arbiter of justice in this farming community. Fortunately, he has the assistance of the perceptive and devoutly Protestant Abner, who is astute (and creative) enough to think outside the box and thus unravels more than a few tangled situations to reach a just (though not always strictly legal) outcome.

So . . . Sherlock Holmes as played by John Wayne.

Of course, Abner is more landed gentry/cattle baron than cowboy, but the idea's the same. The stories combine the moral code of the Old West and Holmes' logical reasoning and observational skills (though Abner lacks Holmes' extensive scientific training), with a healthy dose of religious conviction thrown in. The collection includes all 22 Uncle Abner stories, none of which is longer than 20 pages, so it's easy to read the book in small chunks.

The mysteries themselves aren't all that great, though the resolution of "An Act of God" was particularly clever, and I have to respect "The Doomdorf Mystery" on account of it's one of the earliest locked-room mysteries. The stories revolve mostly around cattle theft, robbery, and land disputes, and the motive is usually avarice. Still, Abner's a one-of-a-kind character, and Post's descriptions of him are fantastic. I think he compares him to Oliver Cromwell no fewer than 3 times in 22 stories, and the stories are replete with (surprisingly relevant) Biblical references. Post interjects lots of historical, political, religious, and legal observations along the way, and it is these passages--rather than the actual mysteries--that make the stories worth reading.

Honestly, I can't do better than to point you to this excellent article on Post, Abner, and why we should hear a lot more about them than we do.  If you enjoy old-school mysteries (Agatha Christie, G.K. Chesterton, Arthur Conan Doyle, Georgette Heyer, etc.), you should definitely give these a try.

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