Originally published in 1943
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.
The Rat Began to Gnaw the Rope may, if you follow a variety of vintage mystery blogs, have cropped up on your feed several times over the past few weeks. That was because, as several of those posts noted, it was a selection for a book club and at this point I can probably reveal that I was responsible for making that selection. The reason I put it forward was not that I had any real knowledge of the author (I had never read anything by either C. W. or Sue Grafton prior to this) but because I wanted to finally get around to trying one of those Library of Congress Crime Classics I have had sitting on my shelf.
The novel concerns Gil Henry, a junior partner in a law firm, who stumbles into a mysterious situation when he is approached by a beautiful young woman named Ruth who is seeking his advice. She tells him how when her father recently died he left her some shares in the company he had worked for. Shortly afterwards she received a visit from her father’s employer who offered to buy them from her and take care of his legal papers. The curious thing is that the offer was for considerably more than those shares were valued leading her to wonder if she might be better holding onto them.
Gil begins the story fairly disinterested in the case but things quickly escalate when he learns that someone had broken into Ruth’s home while she was meeting with him and then, just a short time later, an attempt seems to be made on his life. He soon comes to the opinion that there is a mystery there to unravel though and he tries to find some answers, running into the law, resistance from his own client and several sets of fists.
If you have read some of the reviews posted you may have noticed that the book provoked some quite strong opinions from us. There were some among us who had a great time with the book, some much less so. I think a large part of the reason for that split lies in the character of Gil and the style of narration that Grafton employs here.
While I have seen some, including the introduction to the book, describe this as a work of noir fiction, I think it would be more accurate to say that it is a novel told in a punchy, hard-boiled style. The distinction here is that I feel it is a choice of style and presentation rather than offering a cynical outlook on the world. While Gil is frequently played by others and left to look a little foolish, I don’t think that the book offers anything approaching that cynical view of humanity or even the institutions we create.
This is married with some deeply sarcastic commentary on the action offered in Gil’s narration. This, along with his behavior, becomes increasingly pronounced throughout the novel until by the end of the book he is throwing himself into the action, playing hardball with the authorities and flirting outrageously with some of the female characters. I found this initially a little jarring until I realized that this is a junior, rather corporate lawyer seeing a chance to play Perry Mason, evoking that character’s earlier and rather looser approach to observing the legal niceties. Once I saw it from that perspective I found myself embracing it and relishing some of Gil’s more caustic observations, even if I found his actual voice and interactions with others a little more wearying.
Admittedly the action can get a little silly at points. Others have pointed to the string of concussions that Gil receives and just shakes off in the course of this story as being quite ridiculous. I have to concede they have a point. Still, I embraced that to an extent as a reflection of its somewhat pulpy origins and I appreciated that, while at times ridiculous, it is a pretty effective method for stopping a scene rather than letting it run on and on.
I should also probably acknowledge that the mysterious elements of the story fall short of the fair play standard. At the same time though that didn’t really bother me because I felt Grafton established much of the background to the story extremely well near the beginning. This is particularly impressive as this case involves a few rather technical ideas that are of exactly the sort that usually stump me yet are conveyed quite simply in just a handful of pages. I really respected just how well the author managed to condense that information and use it in a way that seemed both clear and logical in the context of this scenario and these characters.
The explanation for what has happened, when given, feels similarly very clear and easy-to-follow. I felt it was particularly effective when presenting reasons for why things may turn out the way that they did and I think that the book makes great use of the nursery rhyme reference in its title. It really feels quite fitting…
The only aspect of the ending that didn’t quite work for me was an awkward attempt to shoehorn a romantic development in where none really fit. While that does offer a few moments of amusement, I am not sure that I knew those characters well enough at that point to truly invest in that aspect of their lives.
In spite of those small criticisms, I do have to note that I found this to be really rather enjoyable. There are some creative and fun concepts at play making this a quick, page-turning sort of read that delivers on the action. While I might not offer it up to those who are looking for puzzle plots, this is quite readable and thoroughly absorbing overall. I might even go off in search of a copy of the next in the series!
The Verdict: An entertaining blend of pulpy, hard-boiled fiction and the comical.