Uncle Abner, Master of Mysteries, by Melville Davisson Post

“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.

5 thoughts on “Uncle Abner, Master of Mysteries, by Melville Davisson Post”

  1. I feel is though it is a terrible indictment of our culture that we have to worry about how black people were portrayed in older fiction. We have taught people to be far too sensitive. When I was young my parents could say, “this reflects the attitudes of some people at that time, but they were wrong,” and that was enough. I don’t feel like that would work well today.

  2. Why not? Serious question. Of course, perhaps its simply that I didn’t grow up American, and simply cannot understand the depths of the problems caused by race in American culture. To me, the way to solve problems is to talk about them, and the earlier the better. Lars, there is an element of racial stereotyping, often reflecting varying degrees of racial prejudice, in virtually any book I’ve read which has any non-white characters in it, written by a white westerner before about 1960. Would you exclude them all from children? Or is this one particularly bad? What about Kipling? Twain? Rider Haggard? Buchan… all the books I devoured as a teenager…

  3. I did find this one particularly offensive. Not entirely sure why. There’s a particular story where a specially trusted, old female slave is a prominent character. The author goes to great lengths to describe her dignity, implying that she’s a cut above the general run of slaves, but when she speaks she’s highly stereotypical and not very bright. And she talks of the other slaves as if they’re animals. It irked me.

  4. Lars, I must yield to your superior critical judgment, but I enjoyed these stories immensely. I didn’t need Abner to be human because he pretty much felt like a stand-in for God. In any case, I liked the way his knowledge of sin helped him to solve the mysteries.

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