Many readers find modern genre fiction to be excessively “dark” and depressive, and for good reason. There is much, much good in the contemporary American culture, but even the works with sound foundations tend to have to obey the current desire for jaded bleakness. Thus even popular mystery TV series that foreground humor and distinctive, charming, characters must dwell on images of death and decay and explorations of perverse psychologies and diseased social milieux, as in NCIS and Castle.
Some curiosity about the biological and psychological hazards found around us is a good and healthy thing, but too much interest in such matters suggests an insalubrious indulgence in fear-mongering or outright delight in perversity. Voluntary national television industry standards and audience expectations prevented TV series in the 1970s from such dwelling in darkness, and audiences were far bigger then than they are today. I do not suggest direct causality here, but it is undeniable that genre fiction could then confront the varied realities of the human condition without becoming mired in the saddest or most disturbing parts of life.
For those who want a respite from such fare, there is much classic fiction and television to be explored. One of the greatest and most edifying of all mystery writers is the early twentieth century American author Melville Davisson Post, and his most celebrated writings are now available in impressively inexpensive electronic editions from The Mysterious Press.
Davisson’s two books of stories featuring the (then-)scandalously manipulative and brilliant lawyer Randolph Mason, who gets his clients off scot-free by taking advantage of loopholes in the law. If this sounds like a precursor to Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason, that’s only because it is. Davisson, who was a lawyer himself, devised the Mason stories as a way of pointing out to lawmakers that there were problems with the laws that needed addressing. The stories succeed in that regard and are also immensely enjoyable, portraying as they do a fascinatingly intelligent and dedicated man. They are classics of the mystery form and foundation stories of the legal-thriller tradition.
Even better-known and more respected than the Mason stories are Post’s Uncle Abner detective stories. Abner is a stern, pious, strong, and extremely wise and insightful landholder of great integrity in antebellum western Virginia. He confronts criminals of all types, from the lowest social classes to the highest, and each crime enables author Post to illustrate truths from the Bible. The stories are told by Abner’s young nephew, who learns much about life and how to conduct oneself through watching his impressive uncle do what he perceives to be the Lord’s work. So do we, as readers, and the mysteries are well-told and have engaging and thought-provoking puzzle elements.
The Uncle Abner stories are an early example of the historical mystery, which has become extremely popular in recent years, and the most credible mystery critics—such as Barzun, Haycraft, and Queen—rank them among the very greatest of all time. Uncle Abner is a character whom one can plausibly mention in the same breath as Sherlock Holmes, and it would be a very fine thing indeed if some U.S. production company were to base a TV series on the Abner stories.
Two collections of Randolph Mason stories and one of Uncle Abner mysteries are widely available in free etexts through Project Gutenberg and like organizations, but I recommend the Mysterious Press editions, which cost only $.99 apiece and are professional proofread and formatted: