Melville Davisson Post Critical Essays


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

In the introduction to his first series collection, The Strange Schemes of Randolph Mason (1896), Melville Davisson Post established his fiction’s fundamental characteristics. There he pointed out the writer’s obligation as an entertaining “magician” to relieve the audience from the tedium of the commonplace. Post saw little contradiction between that charge and adherence to the puzzle-mystery convention as established by Poe and Doyle, for the puzzle is the universal paradigm of the human encounter with experience: “The human mind loves best the problem.” Every new generation has a fresh experience of the puzzle of meaning lying beneath the surface.

Post found novelty variously. He adapted puzzle-mystery conventions to the new generation of American readers who, as he did, remembered the agrarian past and looked forward to the future. Often, the narrative point of view belongs to an adolescent male who seeks meaning by observing the mature male (the detective); Post’s fiction often synthesizes the initiation story and the mystery plot. The author also sought novelty by finding ever more ingenious ways to move toward unsuspected and satisfying resolutions.

The Strange Schemes of Randolph Mason

In The Strange Schemes of Randolph Mason, Post collected stories marked by novel changes on the puzzle-mystery conventions. The series character lives an aristocratic, solitary existence in private apartments, tended only by his man-of-all-work, Courtland Parks. Although Mason’s grossness of feature may suggest (to those who do not know him) craftiness, cynicism, and even brutality, seen truly, it is a face of “unusual power”—of mind, not body, for Mason suffers from an enervating illness that makes him unfit for ordinary life and forces his withdrawal from the world (as Poe’s Dupin and Doyle’s Holmes are monkish intellectuals). Yet as a lawyer of extraordinary intellect, Mason’s shadowy influence on New York City society is felt. All Post’s series detectives are variations on such characters of remote mental power.

Further reflecting convention, Mason’s relation to his man Parks is like that between the rationally superior detective and his inferior confidant. Parks becomes the physical agency of Mason’s mind; he communicates the lawyer’s advice to clients and checks on the progress of events. Unlike Dupin’s nameless confidant and Holmes’s Watson, however, Parks is not of the same social class as Mason. Nor does he engage in familiarities with his master as Bunter does with Lord Peter Wimsey in Dorothy L. Sayers’s detective fiction. Finally, he is not in the muscular mode of Rex Stout’s Archie Goodwin, who with detective Nero Wolfe is a later variation on the mind-body division of labor.

Beyond these developments, Post served the principle of variety by introducing a shocking deviation in The Strange Schemes of Randolph Mason, for his Mason becomes the mastermind behind shady if not criminal conspiracies. As a preface, each story cites case law, with brief explanations, showing how justice may be evaded, and the stories serve as dramatic illustrations. The author’s justification for writing stories that seem to condone corruption of the law is artful and complex as well as (one suspects) an unsubtle defense of sensationalism. Post’s own legal experience had shown him that moral law and statute law were not synonymous and that the war of life generated battles in the courts between equally bad men who corrupted the law in self-interest. It is therefore the writer’s obligation, according to Post, to warn “the friends of law and order” through such instructive narratives as those in The Strange Schemes of Randolph Mason.

The Man of Last Resort and The Corrector of Destinies

Despite Post’s stated purpose, the Mason stories fail to rise above the flatness of stereotype and the turgidity of melodrama. The second Mason collection, The Man of Last Resort: Or, The Clients of Randolph Mason (1897), continues in much the same vein as The Strange Schemes of Randolph Mason. In The Corrector of Destinies (1908), Post rehabilitates Mason. He recovers “from his attack of acute mania” and now works “to find within the law a means by which to even up and correct every manner of injustice.” Despite their weaknesses, the stories gained an audience for Post, encouraging him to write full time. The stories possess strengths: the persuasive evocation of terror and suspense and an economy of style that moves plot toward direct resolutions.

Ten years separated the last Mason collection and the first Uncle Abner collection. During the interim, Post wrote two novels about the West Virginia hill country that do not belong to the detective genre, Dwellers in the Hills (1901) and The Gilded Chair (1910); a novel of mystery fantasy, The Nameless Thing (1912); and short detective fiction for The Saturday Evening Post, Metropolitan, Pictorial Review, Illustrated Sunday Magazine, and Redbook. These stories were later collected and published as Uncle Abner, Master of Mysteries (1918).

Uncle Abner, Master of Mysteries


(The entire section is 2172 words.)