“Abner,” replied Dillworth, “how shall we know what justice is unless the law defines it?”
“I think every man knows what it is,” said Abner.
“And shall every man set up a standard of his own,” said Dillworth, “and disregard the standard that the law sets up? That would be the end of justice.”
“It would be the beginning of justice,” said Abner, “if every man followed the standard that God gives him.”
“But, Abner,” replied Dillworth, “is there a court that could administer justice if there were no arbitrary standard and every man followed his own?”
“I think there is such a court,” said Abner.
This passage, from a story entitled, “The Tenth Commandment,” in the book, Uncle Abner, Master of Mysteries, by Melville Davisson Post (published 1918), encapsulates, in its moral libertarianism, much of what I found fascinating, and irritating, in this collection. I would like to recommend it for some readers, but have a hard time saying what kind of readers those might be.
“Uncle Abner” is a Virginian backwoodsman living some time in the early 19th Century (I was never able to work out exactly what period. The clues were all over the map.) Most of his stories are narrated by his hero-worshiping nephew (hence the “Uncle”). Abner is a Christian of unimpeachable (frankly overdrawn) integrity and intelligence, a man without official office who nevertheless acts as an investigator whenever a murder is discovered in the neighborhood. His reading of the human heart is infallible, his observations invariably correct, his judgments infallible.
He has little regard for human institutions of justice. When he discovers a murder he’s as likely to let the guilty party off as to turn him over to the authorities, sometimes on the basis of reasoning that seemed pretty obscure to me. He seems to believe that God’s justice is active and inescapable, not only in eternity but in the present, and regards himself as God’s instrument.
In short, he’s a man many of us would like to be, and is also kind of insufferable. In addition I think his theology weak (at one point he says that the devil “is very nearly equal, the Scriptures tell us, to the King of Kings.” The Scriptures tell us no such thing).
The puzzles are interesting, some of them noteworthy in the history of mystery writing. The stories reminded me of Chesterton’s Father Brown mysteries, but were less didactic in terms of theology, and the characters less rounded.
I’d like to recommend this book to adults, but I suspect most readers (even Christians) will find them a touch naïve in terms of realism. I’d like to recommend them for children, but the depictions of black people (mostly slaves at that point in time in Virginia) are not the kind I’d like to see children exposed to.
So make your own judgment.