“Well, here I was and I didn’t know what to do any more than if I was sitting down in front of a dish of poi.”
Yes, Book Club has been something of a trial to me. I love my fellow members of the club, but the books have been more “miss” than “hit.” The problem is that most of us are book bloggers, and we’re all grabbing the best titles to review for ourselves. Then, when we finally come around to selecting a book for all of us to read, the pickings are slim. I mean, why didn’t we all read The Appeal together (I loved that one!) or tackle The Invisible Host, which was problematic but would have inspired a group of GAD fans to have a helluva conversation about you-know-who.
Now, as you know, I am not one to complain; rather, I tend to be the cockeyed optimist of the group who hopes that each new selection will tick all the boxes. So you’ll understand if I felt a little ticked when first the Puzzle Doctor and then Kate of Cross-Examining Crime wrote negative posts on our October book, C.W. Grafton’s 1943 debut mystery, The Rat Began to Gnaw the Rope. Was this to be yet another in a long list of failures for our group? What, if anything, could satisfy this not-so-merry-band?
The answer – for this book club member, at least – is The Rat Began to Gnaw the Rope! Pay no heed to these silly Britishers, my friends: the mystery it contains may be fairly simple (nobody will accuse Grafton of Christie-like puzzle plotting), but that is beside the point. What Rat gives us is a snappy narrative, told with great wit by a shlub of a narrator/junior attorney/Sam Spade wannabe/human punching bag named Gilmore Henry. My friends found themselves immune to the charms of this guy and to the humor that permeates every page of the novel, while I found myself chuckling along and thoroughly delighted.
What’s a guy gonna do?
“I drove around to the office of the telephone company, went in, later couple of bills on the counter, and asked the cashier to give me some change. I had done the same thing that morning, and the old battle ax remembered it. She stopped chewing gum, look at me sourly, and said, “Is it for a phone call?”
“’No,” I said, giving her a cold stare. ‘I’m doing my homework. The teacher wants to know how much change I can get for two one-dollar bills and I want to make a hundred so my daddy will take me to the circus. If you don’t like that, you can say I came in to grow a beard .’”
The late great crime novelist Sue Grafton was the creator of P.I. Kinsey Milhone, whose exploits delighted audiences through twenty-five mysteries, the twenty-sixth of which (Z Is for Zero) will remain unwritten for the rest of time, per the author’s wishes. (She also said, “No TV shows!” and so we won’t ever have to argue who would have turned out to be the David Suchet of Milhone portrayers.) After discussing Patricia Highsmith and other miserably unhappy crime novelists in my last post, it’s wonderful to meet someone who actually loved her parents and was loved by them. One of Grafton’s wishes was that the world would become reacquainted with the crime fiction her father, Cornelius Warren “Chip” Grafton, wrote back in the Golden Age. Her wish was partially granted after her death by the Library of Congress, which republished Rat in 2020 as part of its Crime Classics series.
Born and raised in China by missionary parents, C.W. eventually settled in Louisville, Kentucky where he raised his family and practiced law by day, writing his books well into the night. He loved the mysteries of Ellery Queen, Rex Stout, Erle Stanley Gardner and others, and he decided to turn his hand to the genre. Based on the title of his first book, which derives from a nursery rhyme, it appears that Grafton planned on writing a series of books centered around Gil Henry, who was similar in age and status to Grafton himself. C.W. managed two full books, The Rat Began to Gnaw the Ropeand The Rope Began to Hang the Butcher, plus a draft of a third before abandoning Gil Henry forever. He wrote only two more novels, the final one Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1950) considered by many to be his best – and then he wrote no more. Grafton died a few months shy of his daughter publishing A Is for Alibi, the first Kinsey Milhone adventure, and Sue credits her father with instilling her with the tenets of good writing.
“I reached up and turned off the lightbulb as quickly as I would turn off the electric chair if I were sitting in it and you gave me the switch.“
As Rat begins, Louisville attorney Gil Henry is approached by a young woman named Ruth McClure whose father has recently died in an auto “accident.” Mr. McClure had worked most of his lifetime in nearby Harpersville for the Harper Works, owned and run by the most powerful family in town, and he had accumulated many shares of stock. Ruth has a simple question for Gil: why would the company president, William Jasper Harper himself, offer Ruth and her brother payment for her father’s stock far exceeding its current value?
We’ve seen hard-boiled mysteries start like this over and over, whether it’s The Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep. Except Gil is no swarthy P.I. He’s a pudgy nebbish who can’t figure his way around a woman and wants to help Ruth because . . . well, she’s very pretty. The only snag is that the Harper Works is a client of Gil’s firm, but when he asks senior partner Jim Mead if he can help Ruth without a conflict of interest, Gil is given dismissive approval and sets off to Harpersville to find out what’s what.
Of course, there is a conflict of interest, and Gil soon becomes a reluctant Marlowe, getting fired at, clubbed repeatedly over the head, and threatened by every good and bad denizen of Harpersville, a town seemingly corrupted by the long-hidden lies and secrets of its illustrious namesake family. In short order, Gil is stripped of his car, his clothing, and his dignity; worst of all, he can’t seem to snag a decent meal as he goes about making enemies of just about everyone in northern Kentucky.
“I told her I had to do a couple of wills and they were so confidential I couldn’t even dictate them to myself . . .”
But Gil has some weapons that make him a most determined, if unlikely, hero: he’s instinctively intelligent, enough to know where to find the right people to ask questions of when he’s lost in the financial mire of the Harper Works; he’s obstinately determined and sometimes foolishly brave; and he has a sense of humor that makes reading his chronicles here a great deal of fun – except, of course, for some curmudgeons on the other side of the Atlantic.
I’m here to tell you that the jokes are fine, and the extra bonus is that Gil’s mind works within the confines of contemporary society, giving us a fascinating look at the fads and foibles of pre-WWII American culture. In the Library of Congress edition, many of these references are footnoted for explanation, something that seems to have bothered PD and Kate a great deal. These are editorial footnotes meant to explain to unsavvy readers what a French phone is or who Edna Mae Oliver was, or to acknowledge certain “stuck in its time” instances of racist or anti-Semitic comments. If you don’t want to know, it’s easy: ignore the footnotes. Being an old soul myself, I got most of the references, but I appreciated explanations for those I didn’t understand.
Told in a series of sixty-four very short and pithy chapters Rat,in its shape and quirky characters, is a solid representation of American detective fiction, albeit with a welcome comic undertone. Much violence ensues, most of it happening to Gil himself, but it’s tastefully presented, even when murder finally occurs and Gil finds himself representing the accused. Even when he acts like a boorish male of the time, Gil is funny enough that we can almost forgive him for trying so hard to play the macho man, even when he’s talking to the pretty Ruth:
“’Listen little Bo-Peep, the sheep you are losing aren’t the kind that come wagging their tails behind them. You have to go out and look for them and I may be just the guy who can do it whether you think I’m Hercule Poirot or Alias Jimmy Valentine. Now get up and wash your face and powder your beak and let’s start something.’
“It didn’t go over too big. The look she gave me made it plain that in her bluebook the value of a ‘41 model Gilmore Henry was lower than net income after taxes.”
This isn’t real English, of course – it’s hard-boiled poetry! You may find it very much to your liking or chafe at its by now much parodied artificiality. I though Grafton’s prose was delightful, coupled with a plot that twists and turns in a perfectly enjoyable fashion, and I am happy to recommend this book and positively thrilled that, for once, Book Club has come up with a title that I enjoyed.
Of course, I know where the Puzzle Doctor and Kate stand on this one. Now let’s hear what the rest of you have to say . . .