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