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.


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

The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M Cain (1934)

The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M Cain

7 Stars (7/10 stars)

Love, when you get fear in it, it’s not love any more. It’s hate.”

Frank Chambers has always been a drifter. He’s never found anything worth staying in one place for, until the day he stumbles into a roadside diner and sees Cora Papadakis working the grill. Though their chemistry is undeniable, so is her husband, Nick. There seems to be one easy way to solve their problem, but for Frank and Cora, murder is just the beginning. Continue reading “The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M Cain (1934)”

Criss-Cross (1934) by Don Tracy

Criss-Cross by Don Tracy

6 stars (6/10 stars)

“What a succession of double-crosses had led up to all this […] Double-cross on double-cross. So many of them piled on top of each other. Double-cross on double-cross until the jumble became a big crisscross.”

It’s been said that there are only three motives for murder: love, money, or revenge. Some crimes are caused by all three. Johnny Thompson is a down-on-his-luck former boxer, trying to support his mother and brother by working as an armored car driver. Since they were kids, Johnny has loved Anna. Anna likes Johnny, but what she really loves is money. So she marries Slim, who always has plenty of dough and isn’t too particular about where he gets it.

Then Johnny sees a chance of getting everything he’s ever dreamed of. It’s not moral, and it’s not legal, but a smart guy like him could get away with it. Johnny thinks he knows all the angles. By the time he realizes what kind of game he’s really playing, he’s already in way over his head. Continue reading “Criss-Cross (1934) by Don Tracy”

Build My Gallows High (1946) by Geoffrey Homes

Build My Gallows High by Geoffrey Homes

7 Stars (7/10 stars)

“He was wondering what in hell he was mixed up in…It wasn’t good. It wasn’t good at all. He wasn’t coming out of this untouched. That was certain. For the first time in his life he felt helpless.”

For ten years, Red Bailey has been running from the past. As a seedy private detective in New York City, he accepted a job that changed him forever. Now he only wants to forget, burying himself in rural California where he runs a service station, trying to convince himself he could really marry the girl next door. But Red’s past is about to catch up with  him, and she’s just as tempting, and just as deadly, as ever. Continue reading “Build My Gallows High (1946) by Geoffrey Homes”

Marilyn K (1960) by Lionel White

Marilyn K by Lionel White

5 Stars (5/10 stars)

“Life is filled with new experiences, but this was one I could have gotten along without. Two dead men in one day is a little hard on the system at best; it makes it sort of rough, when you end up with one of them in the trunk of your car.”

Most men would stop if they saw the luscious Marilyn K. stranded by the side of the road. Sam Russell is no exception. Marilyn’s traveling companion has just been killed in a car crash. He’s a married man, and she doesn’t want to get involved in a scandal. When she begs Sam to drive her to a motel, flashing a suitcase full of cash, it all seems too good to be true…and it is. In the beginning, Sam wants the girl and the money. By morning, he’ll settle for escaping with his life, but it may already be too late. Continue reading “Marilyn K (1960) by Lionel White”

The House Next Door (1956) by Lionel White

The House Next Door by Lionel White

7 Stars (7/10 stars)

“Listen, baby,” he said. “I don’t think you quite understand. There was a dead man there, a man that I have every reason to believe was murdered. Someone murdered him. And someone saw me there in that house.”

Fairlawn Acres is a typical American suburb, full of average, ordinary families. Howard McNally has a beautiful wife and child, but can’t stop thinking about the teenage babysitter. Len Neilsen stumbles into the wrong house after a drunken dinner with his boss, only to find himself “in a strange house, in a strange bedroom, with a man who was very dead.” He doesn’t even know which house it was, since they all look alike.

And Gerald Tomlinson has just stolen $48,000 from the South Shore Bank in a bloody shootout—money he’s determined to keep by any means necessary. Continue reading “The House Next Door (1956) by Lionel White”

The Snatchers (1953) by Lionel White

The Snatchers by Lionel White

6 stars (6/10 stars)

“I know about your kind of man. You’d as soon kill as not. You, and those others in there, you’re all of you alike. All of you cowards and killers.”

The kidnapping went off without a hitch, but pulling a job is one thing; getting away with it is another. Cal Dent has been planning this caper for years and he’s willing to do whatever it takes to make a clean getaway—even murder. But the more time he spends around one of his beautiful hostages, the more reluctant he is to let her go. As his perfect scheme starts falling apart, how far will Dent go to save his own skin? Continue reading “The Snatchers (1953) by Lionel White”

Waltz into Darkness (1947) by Cornell Woolrich

Waltz into Darkness by Cornell Woolrich

7 Stars (7/10 stars)

“It’s already too late. It’s been too late since I first met her. It’s been too late since the day I was born.

Shy, middle-aged bachelor Louis Durand has a secret. For months now, he’s been corresponding with Julia Russell through a matrimonial agency. When she arrives in New Orleans for their wedding, however, Louis receives a big surprise. Instead of the plain, older woman he expected, Julia is a charming young beauty.

Durand falls head over heels for his new bride, but she may not be everything she seems. This couple are about to embark on a twisted journey of crime, betrayal, and, most mysterious of all, true love. Continue reading “Waltz into Darkness (1947) by Cornell Woolrich”

The Blackbirder (1943) by Dorothy B. Hughes

The Blackbirder by Dorothy B Hughes

8 Stars (8/10 stars)

“Terror was a luxury. She couldn’t afford it now.”

Julie Guille first heard about the Blackbirder on the night Maxl died. As a French war refugee who is in the United States illegally, the last thing Julie wants is to catch the eye of an old acquaintance, especially a German. She agrees to dine with him only to avoid a scene. “She smiled at him. Her smile looked real. She had learned to form it that way.” That night Maxl tells her the amazing story of a pilot who smuggles refugees across the Mexican border, a man they call the Blackbirder.

When Maxl is stabbed to death in front of her apartment building, Julie knows she will be the prime suspect. Only one person can help her escape: the Blackbirder. To find him, she will have to make her way across a strange country, using the skills she learned in wartime France. With the FBI and the Gestapo on her trail, Julie will need every bit of her courage and intelligence if she hopes to survive. Continue reading “The Blackbirder (1943) by Dorothy B. Hughes”

In a Lonely Place (1947) by Dorothy B. Hughes

In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B Hughes

10 Stars(10/10 stars)

“He has to live with himself. He’s caught there in that lonely place. And when he sees he can’t get away—” Brub shrugged “Maybe suicide or the nut house—I don’t know. But I don’t think there’s any escape.”

Someone is killing women in Los Angeles. Maybe it’s someone like Dix Steele, a war veteran drifting around the city, claiming he’s writing a book. A man who views most other men with contempt and women with something worse.

Yes, maybe it’s someone very, very much like Dix… Continue reading “In a Lonely Place (1947) by Dorothy B. Hughes”