Sue Grafton published “ ‘A’ Is for Alibi,” the first novel in her beloved, best-selling Kinsey Millhone series in 1982 (the year her father died). Grafton was an avid mystery reader and he encouraged his daughter in her love — and eventual mastery — of the form. The elder Grafton wrote three suspense novels himself, but only the legal thriller, “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt” (1951), is remembered (if at all) today.
The Library of Congress thinks it’s time for a C.W. Grafton reconsideration.
The library has recently partnered with Poisoned Pen Press to reprint underappreciated American mysteries in a series called Library of Congress Crime Classics. The first novel in this series was published in April. “That Affair Next Door” (1897), by Anna Katharine Green, has long been championed by feminist scholars because it introduces one of the earliest female detectives, Amelia Butterworth, a snoopy spinster who’s a precursor to gray-haired gal gumshoes such as Miss Marple, Miss Silver and the widowed Jessica Fletcher. I would never dispute Miss Butterworth’s historical significance, but, to my taste, the three novels in which she stars are decorously dull.
So it was with skepticism that I dutifully began reading the next newly exhumed Crime Classic, C.W. Grafton’s 1943 mystery “The Rat Began to Gnaw the Rope.” I was chastened. Grafton’s novel is not simply a historical curio, but a genuinely offbeat and entertaining suspense story.
The accidental hero and narrator of this tale is Gilmore “Gil” Henry, a self-described “short,” “pudgy” lawyer who is the youngest partner in a small-town firm. The novel opens on a scene that was already formulaic by the time Sherlock Holmes began receiving clients at 221B Baker Street: Gil’s secretary alerts him that a distraught young woman is outside his office, requesting to see him. In walks Miss Ruth McClure, bearing a curious tale: Ruth’s father, who had recently died in an accident, was a foreman for the Harper Products Company in nearby Harpersville. Before his death, Ruth’s father instructed her to “hold tight” to the stock he owned in the company. Now, the owner, Mr. William Jasper Harper, has offered to buy that stock for more than the market value. Ruth is a smart cookie and senses something is rotten. She asks Gil to drive to Harpersville and suss out what’s happening. Here’s Gil, a mere third of the way through the novel, summing up his ensuing adventures to Ruth:
“I went from [Harpersville] to Louisville and stole some records trying to figure out your puzzle for you and before I got through, I felt as if the whole town was alive with policemen peering at me from behind telephone poles and from under automobiles. I flew back to my office and got knocked cold in the hall and somebody searched my room at the YMCA. I nearly got arrested for attempted blackmail . . . and I’ve quit my law firm. I am rewarded by the undying love and affection of everyone concerned — I don’t think.”
The warp-speed pace of Grafton’s plot is intensified by its short chapters, most averaging three pages. It’s the tone, however, that really distinguishes this novel as something special. The introduction to this edition, written by Leslie S. Klinger, makes the claim that Grafton was one of the first American crime novelists to infuse his story with humor — not simply the wisecracks muttered by hard-boiled detectives such as Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, but an all-encompassing comic viewpoint. For instance, when he’s not getting conked on the head and stumbling over corpses, Gil is doing screwball things such as grabbing nearby dames and kissing them. (Politically correct these suspense tales of yore are not. This one contains plenty of racist, classist, ageist and sexist comments.) When Ruth breaks into tears after her brother has been arrested, Gil gives a funny spin to the classic tough guy “suck-it-up” speech:
“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. . . . 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 bluebook the value of a ’41 model Gilmore Henry was lower than net income after taxes.”
The merrily macabre tone of Grafton’s novel makes up for thin characters and many an implausible plot turn. No matter. How can you resist a novel filled with lingo like “powder your beak”? In 1944, Grafton wrote a second novel featuring Gil Henry, “The Rope Began to Hang the Butcher.” According to Sue Grafton, her father planned an eight-book series whose titles would derive from that grisly English nursery rhyme (printed in its entirety in one of the many helpful footnotes in this edition). C.W. completed a partial draft of a third novel before he called it quits. Sue Grafton, more of a marathoner, almost made it to the finish line in her wry Kinsey Millhone series: She died in 2017 with only “Z” left undone. Father and daughter clearly shared not only outsize mystery writing ambitions, but a lively sense of humor as well.
Maureen Corrigan, who is the book critic for the NPR program “Fresh Air,” teaches literature at Georgetown University.
By C.W. Grafton
Library of Congress Crime Classics in partnership with
Poisoned Pen Press and Source Books. 304pp. Paperback, $14.99
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