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The Ebony Bed Murder

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Gillmore, Rufus - The Ebony Bed Murder (1932)


The detectives in Rufus Gillmore's The Ebony Bed Murder (1932) are clones of those in S. S. Van Dine's novels. The main detective Griffin Scott is not a social aristocrat, but the owner and manager of a New York advertising agency. He is a connoisseur of antique furniture, however, just like Vance, including the ebony bed of the title. After a few chapters, the detective's sophisticated conversation and cultural references fall away, however, and we are left with a very ordinary figure. Modern critics have often expressed a wish that Philo Vance were not an aesthete with a flamboyant personality, and were just a regular guy instead. Here is the result of that wish fulfilled. And what is the upshot? Total dullness, that's what! While Philo Vance is an unforgettable original, Scott is just a painfully ordinary guy.


The other sleuths in Gillmore's book have diminished in their cloning as well. The DA is the detective's friend, and brings him in as an amateur consultant to solve the murder, just as in Van Dine. But he seems less noble, intelligent and flexible than the idealistic, dedicated DA in Van Dine. And the police Sergeant Mullens is just plain obnoxious, always trying to pin the crime on a young woman in the case. Van Dine's Sgt. Heath may be low brow, and often mistaken in his ideas compared with Vance, but he is also generous, decent, open minded, genuinely concerned with truth, and filled with great respect for Vance.


Griffin Scott's secret den at the beginning is full of high tech gizmos, and there is an interesting look at tear gas later on. Such a secret den recalls the heroes of the pulp magazines, more than the Van Dine school. Scott also performs some not bad medical detection in the opening chapters. In general, there is a small atmosphere of scientific detection to the book, reminiscent of such Van Dine school writers as Abbot and C. Daly King. The mechanical but never lazy plotting recalls that of 1930's film whodunits, with suspects always moving around. The second murder in the story is especially startling, and also resembles in its choice of victims King.


Despite a general lack of inspiration in this minor novel, it somehow remains likable. There is no sense of malice in Gillmore. Racial minorities are not belittled, although in fact they hardly show up at all, nor are the servants caricatured. The murdered women's numerous husbands are chronicled with some storytelling verve, so are her mercenary relatives. She resembles to a degree the much married woman in Earl Derr Biggers' Keeper of the Keys (1932), although she is far more mercenary. The story also resembles Biggers' novel in involving a shooting, and in tracking the movements of the characters at the time of the murder.


Mike Grost

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