Final Proof (1898) by Rodrigues Ottolengui

Final Proof by Rodrigues Ottolengui

6 stars (6/10 stars)

“I am afraid this is a serious case. What has been done has been so thoroughly well accomplished that I believe we have no fool to deal with. His is a master hand.”

Final Proof is a group of linked novellas and short stories that seem to show the fair-play mystery developing before the reader’s eyes. These tales pit two detectives against one another in friendly (and sometimes not-so-friendly) rivalry. John Barnes is a professional private detective, while his friend Robert Leroy Mitchel is a gifted amateur with Sherlock Holmes-like powers of deduction. Mr. Mitchel will stop at absolutely nothing in pursuit of a case, and even tries to prevent crimes before they happen, often leaving Mr. Barnes gently bewildered in his wake. Continue reading “Final Proof (1898) by Rodrigues Ottolengui”

The Rat Began to Gnaw the Rope (1943) by C. W. Grafton

The Rat Began to Gnaw the Rope by CW Grafton

7 Stars (7/10 stars)

This is Gil Henry. I’m in Harpersville. Does anyone want you to be dead?”

Gil Henry is the last person anyone would expect to become the hero of a hard-boiled mystery. A short, pudgy young man, he lives modestly at the YMCA and works as a very junior partner in a “law firm which trickles out to practically nothing by the time it gets to me.” He only gets the small clients, and Ruth McClure is just about the smallest there is. She has inherited some stock in Harper Products Company after the recent death of her father, who worked for the firm all his life. The owner of the company rouses her suspicions by offering to buy it back for far more than its value. Gil agrees to look into the transaction, only to find his quiet life turned upside down.

The Rat Began to Gnaw the Rope by CW GraftonThe Rat Began to Gnaw the Rope is another excellent entry in the Library of Congress Crime Classics series. This quirky small-town noir is enlivened by a main character who is inexperienced and prone to gaffes, but will stop at nothing when his detective instincts are alerted. The author, C. W. Grafton, is better known today for being the father of Sue Grafton than for his own offbeat mysteries. However, The Rat Began to Gnaw the Rope makes it evident that writing talent ran in the family.

Though Gil may not know much about crime, he knows when something is off. “He’s got more curiosity than an old maid,” says Ruth, “and his mind is so sharp it’s about to cut his ears off.” He sees plenty that is wrong in Harpersville, starting with an attempt on his life before he even hits the city limits. William Jasper Harper owns Harper Products Company, which means he more or less owns the whole town. Ruth McClure’s father John was one of the company’s longest-serving employees. Though he never earned more than thirty-five dollars a week, he drove a brand-new car every year and sent both of his children to expensive private colleges. Not to mention, where did McClure get the ten thousand dollars to buy that stock in the first place? If William Jasper Harper has his way, Gil won’t be staying in town long enough to find out.

In fact, Harper seems to have the entire town under his thumb. His reign over Harpersville goes beyond mere small-town cronyism, to a darker and more corrupt place. Everyone seems beholden to him, yet the relationships don’t play out in a way that makes sense. None of the numbers add up. Ruth cannot forget her father pointing at the factory as they drove past one day, telling her, “Remember this. There is more here than you can see from the outside.”

The Rat Began to Gnaw the Rope by CW Grafton (mapback back)The Rat Began to Gnaw the Rope by CW Grafton (mapback front)

The unprepossessing Gil is less like Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade than like a terrier with a bone. He has to keep gnawing at the mystery until it is solved. His narration hilariously details the many indignities that befall him along the way, starting with the near-fatal “accident” that destroys his only suit. “Every person has some cross to bear,” Gil laments. “Mine is that I am not shaped like people who are intended to get their clothes in ready-to-wear shops.” The hastily purchased replacement suit does nothing for his dignity.

I thought snug was hardly the appropriate word since my belt was already out of sight and I could tell that I would not want to sit down very often […] I regretted my decision when I crawled in under the wheel of the car. They say when you cut earthworms in two, the halves go about their own business and supply whatever it takes to carry on, but I am no earthworm and I had no faith in my ability to do the same.

Nor does it improve his standing in the eyes of Ruth, who instead seems to harbor an unsisterly affection for her adopted brother, Tim. The closer Gil gets to Harper, his invalid wife, and his secretive daughter Janet, the more perilous his situation becomes, especially as his law firm is deeply involved with the Harper family.

Gil spends almost as much time meeting with accountants and poring over dusty ledgers as he does dodging bullets. That’s not to say there isn’t plenty of action. Grafton maintains a nonstop pace, and someone (usually Gil) is always running from the cops or getting slugged in dark rooms. Still, he ultimately solves the case using his legal abilities, not his fists, even as he takes to the hard-boiled atmosphere like a duck to water.

I said: “Listen little Bopeep, the sheep you are losing aren’t the kind that come home 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 blue-book the value of a ’41 model Gilmore Henry was lower than net income after taxes.

The Rat Began to Gnaw the Rope is fast-paced and punchy, its short chapters tearing through one breathless twist after another. Gil’s ultimate destination is not likely to surprise—the solution is fairly obvious, though there are a few extra complications thrown in. The journey he takes to get there, however, is full of twists, absurdities, and double-crosses. All of it is anchored by Gil’s wisecracks, which keep things light even as the bodies are falling. Gil Henry may take the long way around, but it’s a pleasure to follow him there.

Second Opinions

Washington Post

Grafton’s novel is not simply a historical curio, but a genuinely offbeat and entertaining suspense story.

Publisher’s Weekly

The superior prose and logical but surprising plot twists amply justify this volume’s reissue as a Library of Congress Crime Classic.

Availability

The Rat Began to Gnaw the Rope is available in paperback and ebook formats from Library of Congress Crime Classics.

That Affair Next Door (1897) by Anna Katharine Green

That Affair Next Door by Anna Katharine Green

6 stars (7/10 stars)

“Though I have had no adventures, I feel capable of them, and as for any peculiar acumen he may have shown in his long and eventful career, why that is a quality which others may share with him, as I hope to be able to prove before finishing these pages.”

There are those who believe Amelia Butterworth is a meddlesome old maid. Among them are her neighbors, the Van Burnams. But it’s hardly Miss Butterworth’s fault that she happened to glance out her window one night just as a man and woman entered the Van Burnam house. Knowing the family is away in Europe, it would be irresponsible not to notify police the next morning. And when the supposedly empty house turns out to contain a dead body, it’s her clear duty to investigate.

Mr. Gryce of the police department is happy to indulge a lady’s fancies. What harm will it do to let Miss Butterworth believe they are rival investigators? Little does he realize how formidable a lady detective can be. “This aged detective is used to women, I have no doubt,” Miss Butterworth gloats, “but he is not used to me.”

That Affair Next Door by Anna Katharine GreenThat Affair Next Door is a fitting debut for the Library of Congress Crime Classics series, as it is likely the first American novel to feature a female detective. In fact, Anna Katharine Green is known as the mother of detective fiction. Her earlier works featured male sleuths, including Ebenezar Gryce, who also plays a significant role in That Affair Next Door. But it’s Miss Amelia Butterworth who steals the show here—not only the first, but one of the best spinster detectives. Though this is a tight story by nineteenth-century standards, modern readers may find it wordy and melodramatic. Whenever Miss Butterworth takes center stage, however, the narrative lives and breathes.

The young woman who lies dead in the Van Burnam house has seemingly met her death by misadventure after knocking a china cabinet down upon herself, smashing her face beyond recognition. Yet it is clear to both Gryce and Butterworth that there is more to the case. The two adult sons of the house, Howard and Franklin Van Burnam, were both in New York at the time of the murder, neither of them able to explain their strange activities. They staunchly insist they have no idea who the dead woman is. Even the finest families have their secrets, however, and no one is better placed to discover them than Amelia Butterworth. She coolly assures Gryce:

“You need not trouble yourself to show me too much politeness. If I meddle in this matter at all it will not be as your coadjutor, but as your rival.”

“My rival?”

“Yes, your rival; and rivals are never good friends until one of them is hopelessly defeated.”

As they struggle to identify the dead woman and her killer, the two detectives embark upon a competition that is light-hearted on Gryce’s side, but deadly serious for Miss Butterworth. Though she declares, “I am clever and am not ashamed to own it,” she can also be opinionated and interfering, which has not won her many friends. She has been bored for most of her life. To succeed in the investigation, Miss Butterworth must learn how to moderate her worst impulses while retaining her own capable nature. In the process, she discovers her life’s work.

I had not known up to this very hour that I had any special gifts. My father, who was a shrewd man of the old New England type, said more times than I am years old (which was not saying it as often as some may think) that Araminta (the name I was christened by, and the name you will find in the Bible record, though I sign myself Amelia, and insist upon being addressed as Amelia, being, as I hope, a sensible woman and not the piece of antiquated sentimentality suggested by the former cognomen)—that Araminta would live to make her mark; though in what capacity he never informed me, being, as I have observed, a shrewd man, and thus not likely to thoughtlessly commit himself.

The investigation is steeped in fascinating details of life in gilded-age Manhattan, as the indomitable Miss Butterworth charges through genteel parlors, grubby curio shops, and Chinese laundries in search of clues. Everyone she meets is subject to her withering judgment.

Much depends upon subtle details of dress that are less obvious to a male detective; even the unfashionable Miss Butterworth knows that the dead woman, soberly dressed in ready-made clothing, could not be the same woman who owned the expensive and flamboyant couture hat found in the closet. If that is the case, however, what happened to the victim’s own hat? (The idea that she might not have worn one is too horrifying to contemplate. Even the landlady of a boarding house insists, “if she had had no hat on, she wouldn’t have got as far as my parlor mat.”)

That Affair Next Door by Anna Katharine GreenThe smallest nuances of costume, manner, and appearance are dissected in light of nineteenth-century customs, most of them explained well enough to be understood even by those who may not remember the 1890s too well. Inevitably, some references will be lost on the modern reader, but it’s usually easy enough to get the idea. Miss Butterworth insists that her “puff” hairstyle is both stylish and becoming, for instance, but the dubious way everyone else refers to the puffs suggests that they are a long way from the height of fashion.

Since this is a high-society murder, issues of social class are front and center, sometimes presented in a way that seems shockingly blunt. One reason the fashion clues are so important is that they are assumed to reveal the social position of the wearer. The investigators are examining the quality and prices of the garments, but there is a difference between having money and being a lady. That hat in the closet is costly and beautifully made, but no lady would wear such a garish item. The victim’s clothing comes from an upscale department store, but no lady would wear a ready-made dress. Though Miss Butterworth is more of an all-purpose cynic than a snob in the traditional sense, she is finely attuned to what is done and what is not done in old New York families. The Van Burnam case seems strange to her from the start because so much of it does not align with what she would expect from such a family. Is this a clue in itself, or simply a sign that old money can behave just as badly as anyone else?

The mystery is wonderfully complicated. After a certain point in the story, it’s easy to identify the culprit, but harder to guess exactly what happened. There are a lot of small moving parts, each of which fits into its proper place by the end. Interestingly, Mr. Gryce and Miss Butterworth are both shown going about their rounds and, though they are moving in different directions, their solutions seem equally plausible. Neither comes off as buffoonish—they are both doing serious and credible work. Since for Gryce the work is what really matters, he’s able to put his ego aside when he makes a mistake, delighted by all the new possibilities Miss Butterworth is presenting.

Beautiful! I don’t know of anything more interesting! We have not seen the like in years! I can almost congratulate myself upon my mistakes, the features of the case they have brought out are so fine!

For Miss Butterworth, the stakes of their competition are much higher. She relishes the thrill of the chase without ever forgetting that she must show Gryce what female detectives—and Miss Amelia Butterworth in particular—can achieve.

“I never enjoyed myself so much in my whole life,” says Miss Butterworth after delivering her solution. While I wouldn’t go that far myself, That Affair Next Door is a well-crafted gaslight detective story that paints a striking portrait of turn-of-the-century New York City. Amelia Butterworth is the real treasure, though, a heroine who is almost too modern for the book she finds herself in.

Second Opinion

bookwormchatterbox

Some would say that Green purposefully bases her novel upon the actions of a spinster in order to subvert society’s expectations of her; ironically, the woman who is isolated in Victorian society and is effectively good for nothing is the one who solves the case. This in turn reveals to the reader the poor treatment of the spinster in that time period, and instead points the finger of ridicule at the community who takes her for granted. The stereotypical opinion of the ‘old maid’ is dismissed within this novel and I feel this is what makes it so compelling. Granted, a re-reading of this story will not evoke surprise at the outcome, but I believe that it is worth re-visiting Miss Butterworth again in order to observe her development as a strong-willed character in literature; she is a woman who will not accept defeat. Many people see Amelia as a joke, but she is the main character of her own novel and inevitably has the last laugh – a satisfying conclusion where the little old lady outsmarts all of the professional men. 

Availability

That Affair Next Door has just been reissued by the Library of Congress Crime Classics through Poisoned Pen Press. It is also in print from Duke University Press as part of a double volume with Amelia Butterworth’s second adventure, Lost Man’s Lane. This title is also in the public domain.