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

Today’s read comes from a new to me author and it is also the first time I have tried one of the titles from the Library of Congress Crime Classics reprint series.

Synopsis

‘Short, chubby, and awkward with members of the opposite sex, Gil Henry is the youngest partner in a small law firm, not a hard-boiled sleuth. So when an attractive young woman named Ruth McClure walks into his office and asks him to investigate the value of the stock she inherited from her father, he thinks nothing of it―until someone makes an attempt on his life. Soon Gil is inadvertently embroiled in a classic American scandal, subterfuge, and murder. He’s beaten, shot, and stabbed, as his colleagues and enemies try to stop him from seeing the case through to the end. Surrounded by adversaries, he teams up with Ruth and her secretive brother to find answers to the questions someone desperately wants to keep him from asking. In this portrait of America on the eve of America’s entry into World War II, C.W. Grafton―himself a lawyer and the father of prolific mystery writer Sue Grafton―pens an award-winning historical crime fiction that combines humor and the hard-boiled style and will keep readers guessing until its thrilling conclusion.’

Overall Thoughts

The reprint is introduced by Leslie S. Klinger and one of the key ideas he wishes to get across is that Grafton is doing humorous hard-boiled noir. Klinger cites not only that the works of Erle Stanley Gardner, Rex Stout, Zenith Jones Brown a.k.a. David Frome and Leslie Ford as ‘of the “hard-boiled” mystery school’ but as ‘serious’ in tone, concluding that with these books and in ‘early noir films like The Maltese Falcon […] comedy need not apply.’ I haven’t read enough of Brown’s works to comment, but I have read a number of titles by Gardner and Stout, and they do not seem devoid of humour to me. They are no less funny than today’s read and in some cases I would say they are funnier. There are many verbal sparring matches between Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin and Perry Mason is not short of a witty or cutting remark.

Klinger then goes on to describe our lawyer protagonist, Gilmore Henry, as an ‘antihero’. In a generic sense this term simply means to act in a way contrary to the stereotypical way a hero would do, and this is the sense I think Klinger is meaning. Gilmore is no one’s Tom Ripley, a character created by Patricia Highsmith who delivers a more amoral version of antihero, a version which people perhaps think more readily of these days. Gilmore’s negation of physical heroic attributes is established early on when he must borrow clothes from another man who is bigger than him:

‘I rolled up probably eight inches around my ankles and the overlap at my waistline was something to look at. The shoulders of the coat hung down almost to my elbows and, of course, my hands were clear out of sight up the sleeves. No wonder Miss Ruth McClure laughed when she saw me. I was a dead ringer for the smallest of the seven dwarfs and sure enough she called me dopey.’

Unfortunately, the introduction ends with one of those generalised statements which really get on my wick. One of the reasons Klinger gives for Grafton’s novel being reprinted is that a story like that one ‘lightened the mood of crime fiction.’ This somewhat gives the impression that crime fiction at this stage was very dour and sombre. Yet I think Craig Rice, Phoebe Atwood Taylor, Leo Bruce and Edmund Crispin would have something to say about that. So not only is this statement wildly inaccurate, but having now read the book, if Grafton’s story is Klinger’s idea of lightening things up, I would hate to see what mysteries Klinger defines as darkening the genre!

Grafton’s mystery does not commence with murder, but instead the opening chapter sets up a financial crime of some sort. We’re not sure how honest Gilmore’s client has been with him, although we can be confident someone is trying hard to kill him. Those used to Perry Mason’s verbal repartee with Della Street and his clients will have to look elsewhere as Gilmore’s conversation does not sparkle in that way.

There are two typographical/structural features to note in this text. The first is that this reprint edition contains a lot of footnotes. I had been warned about these. I don’t think they bothered me as much, as I was easily able to skip them. Nevertheless, I think end notes would have been a better editorial choice, as at one stage one of the footnotes takes up half the page to recite a nursery rhyme. Now if these notes were crucial to understanding the plot it would be understandable, but sadly they only include rather unimportant information that many readers would not be interested in or would find unnecessary.

Secondly, in the main, the novel is composed of very short chapters, with some only being 2-3 pages long. I found this an interesting and surprising choice as it was not something I expected from an older mystery. It is a style I associate more with modern fiction. At its best this style gives the story an episodic feel but at the novel developed I found it a bit too choppy. It gave the impression of a writer who didn’t have enough words to expand a scene so just used the most functional sentences to get it over and done with as quickly as possible. It sort of reminded me of stories that young children write. Not reading much noirish books I wasn’t sure if an elliptic style was more common in that subgenre?

As such, scenes containing dramatic action seemed to be delivered in a very matter of fact tone, which I don’t think added to the reading experience. Occasions of near death are over in the blink of an eye. Nevertheless, despite this issue, Gilmore came across to me as a hero in jeopardy sort of character. You know when he borrows one of his boss’s cars that he is going to crash and his approach to sneaking around offices at night is akin to a hero in jeopardy searching a remote derelict house. You’re not surprised when he gets conked on the head, though you might be surprised by how many injuries he can sustain and still regain consciousness and carry on as normal. Gilmore is not a character I overly warmed to. It takes a while for his first-person narration to reveal some of his personality and what is shown is conflicting. Gilmore is something of a mouse in the face of adversity, frequently getting knocked out and having to give way to stronger men who push him round. But on several occasions around women, Gilmore then seems to act out and express his built-up frustration, either aggressively kissing the woman, or rough handling her for no good reason. I know such behaviour is of the time for that type of noirish mystery, it just doesn’t fit the character of Gilmore well. It comes across as odd, as does his romance, which is poorly established and rushed. You have no idea what the woman sees in him! You feel like saying to her “Honey, you could do a whole lot better. Try eHarmony. Try speed dating. Try dropping your books next to the cute guy in the library!” Anything but settle for Gilmore!

So yes this book hasn’t hugely worked for me. Despite having a lot of action, the pace of the text felt slow and it dragged. The point when Gilmore has to go through the financial paperwork was definitely a grim moment. However, upon reflection I think there is a clever mystery trying to get out of this narrative. It is just buried under the wrong narrator and a length of text which needed trimming. The final solution is a good one and I liked the unusual mystery surrounding a woman who gives eggs to various people involved in the case. The death of the seemingly obvious villain provides an interesting twist mid-way through the mystery and because we are not presented with a traditional murder mystery to solve, the narrative trajectory is less predictable. In the hands of another author I think this could have been a very strong read.

Rating: 3.5/5

See also: The Puzzle Doctor and Dead Yesterday have also reviewed this title.

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