#864: The Invisible Host, a.k.a. The Ninth Guest (1930) by Gwen Bristow and Bruce Manning

Invisible Host

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An unknown host invites a disparate group of people to an isolated location, and then informs them of the plan to kill them one by one; accusation and counter-accusation is high on the agenda, but the deaths come regularly no matter what our invitees do. That The Invisible Host (1930) by husband-and-wife team Gwen Bristow and Bruce Manning shares some core DNA with And Then There Were None (1939) by Agatha Christie isn’t in doubt. What makes this fascinating reading, quite apart from its brisk pace and very entertaining setup, is seeing how different minds develop the same base ingredients.

I can level two flaws at The Invisible Host: first, that the characters really do not compel themselves to the memory, and second that Bristow and Manning stumbled in having their homicidal host insist on a death at the stroke of every hour. On account of the first, I wasn’t entirely sure who was who and how they fit into things until there were perhaps only half of our original eight guests remaining — contrast this with how effortlessly you know the first victim by the time of their demise in ATTWN — and on account of the second it can sometimes feel like Bristow and Manning don’t really have their plot worked out all that clearly. The events that occur between the second and third deaths, for instance, would probably take about ten minutes, rather than the sixty the narrative claims, and this telescoping for the benefit of a deadline left me rather unconvinced.

However, I get the flaws out of the way early because in almost every other regard the book is a genuine success. There’s arguably no detection per se, with the reasoning used to finally unmask the guilty party being a combination of occluded physical information and a contorted semi-reasoning that then requires a 20+ page monologue to explain, but as a thriller it’s pretty top. The core idea is so savage that there’s a genuine thrill when things kick off, and the sheer number of deaths that we are there to witness — as opposed to a body being stumbled upon long after the fact — feels like a piece of revolutionary brilliance in the genre. X v. Rex a.k.a. The Mystery of the Dead Police (1933) by Philip MacDonald is widely credited as being the first serial killer novel, but the concision of Bristow and Manning’s design feels like they got to the idea first.

There’s also something terrifying yet hilarious in the urbanity of the disembodied voice from the radio assuring the guests that, sure, they’re gonna be murdered tonight, but the cigarettes and alcohol on hand are plentiful and of the highest quality; also, look at the calibre of the bindings on the books, and the workmanship of the Chekov’s rapiers mounted on the walls. It’s a shame that little is made of this beyond mere boastful reassurance, but the contrast of impending terror with the person who has trapped you in a murder house ensuring you know that the sheets have a high thread count is so wonderfully loopy that I couldn’t let it pass without comment. Actually, add to this the insistence that the man hired as butler for the evening be “named Hawkins or Tompkins”…did I miss something there, or is this just another absurdist touch?

And, yes, the characters are broad and largely indistinguishable, but some fun is had with them nonetheless, like Margaret Chisholm — Mrs. Gaylord Chisholm, I’ll thank you to remember — who “embodied so superbly the qualities of an aristocrat that it was difficult to remember that she had merely married one”, or this exchange between Hollywood starlet Jean Trent and politician Tim Slamon (yes, Slamon; no, not “Salmon” — god alone knows why not) after yet another edict from the disembodied voice through the wires:

“I never did like radios,” said Jean.

“You wouldn’t,” said Tim. “They keep people home from the movies.”

It’s true that some of the secrets or weaknesses the guests harbour have either lost their sting after nine decades — though extra points for use of “mésalliance” — or stretch credulity when it comes to each guest effectively being responsible for their own death as the voice claims. Am I right that one murder is effected on account of someone having poor taste in matters of interior design? And how lucky no-one brushed up against the…object…earlier in the night! But the deaths, and the bitternesses they uncover, are swift, numerous, and highly entertaining — the semi-impossible poisoning of the only person not to have a doctored drink is a lovely touch — and there’s a great discussion about life dragging on too long for many people (“A man should die at his pinnacle…so he would not know the pain of being entombed alive in an age whose confusion is not his own.”). Additionally, the reflection on the role of the critic in not just propping up the egos of those who are under the microscope is really quite magnificent — seriously, now, Christianna Brand couldn’t have done better.

Unquestionably, Christie’s take on the setup is an improvement — giving her victims a whole island and several days over which to die, ramping up the paranoia, not tied to an hourly or daily deadline — but Bristow and Manning write with such verve and delight at their idea that surely only a hard heart would fail to get swept along. The stand-off at the end is arguably more pleasing than Christie’s (necessary) non-ending, and the final line of The Invisible Host has about it the flavour of something quite wonderful. I finished this keen to see what their other books had to offer, and was delighted to find that Dean Street Press had reissued all four novels on the same day. Much like the similarly matrimonial Kelley Roos, Bristow and Manning apply themselves well to a novel premise, and I’m looking forward to seeing what else those fertile imaginations cooked up in the criminal vein.

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The crime novels of Gwen Bristow and Bruce Manning, reprinted by Dean Street Press:

  1. The Invisible Host, a.k.a. The Ninth Guest (1930)
  2. The Gutenberg Murders (1931)
  3. The Mardi Gras Murders (1932)
  4. Two and Two Makes Twenty-Two (1932)

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It would be remiss of me, given the Agatha Christie comparisons that come tied to this one, not to remind you of the ongoing vote for which books you’d like Brad, Moira, and I to discuss ion spoiler-rich detail in the months ahead. With nine days until the result, make sure you get your votes in!

33 thoughts on “#864: The Invisible Host, a.k.a. The Ninth Guest (1930) by Gwen Bristow and Bruce Manning

  1. If you watch the 1934 film version of The Invisible Host (The Ninth Guest) and thr non-canonical (despite its title) 1933 Holmes film A Study in Scarlet— both widely and easily available— you’ll see that And Then There Were None seems to be equal parts of each. And, I think it very likely that Christie was familiar with neither. The coincidences are great, but such coincidences (and even more remarkable ones) do happen, and these are just the kind of ideas that would occur to writers who were seeking intriguing situations.

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    • To be honest, even if Christie read this twenty times and watched that movie 50 times I don’t see the problem. What Bristow and Manning have written here is a neatly compact little thriller that has great ideas, but the scope to improve upon the realisation is vast, and Christie’s tale diverges quickly enough and with more than enough additions and inspiration for lazy claims of plagiarism to be levelled at ATTWN. They’re exceedingly different books, and the central idea is so damn good that it would be folly to see your way through to the obviously more rigorous realisation and then not write that vast overhauled version.

      I’d rather the world had ATTWN in it, and the sharing of essential ideas — Carr vs. Rawson, say — is part of what made GAD so brilliant, since different folks wrote different strokes.

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      • I totally agree, though I quite understand why people look at The Ninth Guest and also A Study in Scarlet (with which the parallels to And Then There Were None are arguably even more remarkable, yet surprisingly almost mutually exclusive— A Study in Scarlet is similar to ATTWN in almost all the ways The Ninth Guest isn’t!) and assume Christie employed them as her inspiration. But besides the fact that I agree there’s nothing wrong with that, as one who has written a play with the same specific milieu and uncommon culprit motive as a John Dickson Carr novel— having never previously never read that novel— I can attest that such coincidences do happen.

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  2. My main criticism is the insistence by the voice that this is some sort of competition, with the implication that the selected victim could win. But the rules are never explained and none of the victims stand a chance, until there are just 3 of them left and 2 of them work together to work out how the 3rd killed the previous victim

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    • Kerrie, that’s true, and I find it symbolic of the whole faulty analogy of the genre with a competitive game— a competitive game in which there are no rules for the reader, no arbiter of outcome other than the subjective judgment of one of the participants, and greater satisfaction (for many) derived from “losing” than “winning” (among other distinctions). Like those who would describe detective fiction as a competitive game, the “Ninth Guest” is taking a vague metaphor far too literally. If my life were at stake, I’d like my opportunities for survival far more explicitly explained!

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    • The voice claims a lot of stuff that doesn’t really play out as it sounds — each person being responsible for their death, say, is a psychologically brilliant idea that goes nowhere — but arguably that might be a result of poor planning on the killer’s part.

      Interesting, too, that Christie wrote a dramatisation of ATTWN that has essentially the ending of this book. Sure, the mores of the time doubtless rendered it more acceptable — it’s less of a downer than the original, too — but that feels to me like it suits this setup far better than ATTWN’s.

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      • Perhaps, though I think that ending works perfectly with the style of the 1945 film version, which I consider as much a masterpiece in its own way as Christie’s novel.

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    • You’ll be waiting a while — my TBR is a beast — but I will definitely read further. The ideas these two play with show great invention, and that warrant’s further inspection.

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  3. Sounds great Jim, great to have this easily available again. According to Mike Nivens, Ellery Queen (Dannay and Lee) had to abandon the novel they planned to publish in 1940 as it too closely resembled the Christie, so collectors think that they hadn’t come across this earlier take on the theme either.

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    • Or perhaps 1940 was considered too soon after ATTWN — and Christie was a Big Cheese by that point, too. A decade on from two minor names in the genre is one thing, but immediately following a huge-selling global megastar would be quite another 🙂

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  4. The success of this reprint is making me second guess myself. I read a Dutch translation in the late 2000s and hated it. A candidate for a top 10 worst mysteries ever written, but now I begin to wonder if the translation, not the story, was the problem. On the other hand, you liked it. So how good can it really be? 😉 So back on the pile it goes for a second opinion. It better be good, Jim! It better be good.

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  5. I actually liked this one quite a bit. The tension is higher than in Christie’s novel, specially towards the end, and having the taunting mastermind speaking through the radio all the time is just awesome. Also, one of the clues is brilliant.
    There are some rough spots here and there in the “how” department, but it’s great fun.
    When it comes to Ellery Queen’s take on the problem , I don’t think they abandoned it because it dealt with the same topic as Christie’s book , since mystery writers love to find different solutions to the same setup. I’d bet it was because it would have had a similar resolution, maybe even exactly the same as TLN (ATTWN).

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    • Yeah, the challenge of another — more interesting — solution is a big one, eh? Topping Christie’s work, given the expectations of the genre (killer among the cast, clues provided, etc.) would have been a huge ask so soon after she’d already bossed this idea.

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  6. I have trouble seeing how anyone could take so a great dislike to this book. It’s so taut and moves so quickly it can hardly outstay its welcome, or so it seems to me. As I said in the intro it reminds of the Saw franchise films.

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    • Yes, the comparison is and oddly apt one — the uncaring voice never altering in pitch or seeming to care as the cast go through more and more psychological horrors. As I say above, there’s an air of the ur-serial killer about this that makes it historically very interesting.

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  7. I have to wonder if some of those accusations of plagiarism that were leveled at Christie were made with the same bad-faith as those critics and commentators who were always trying to undermine her value as a writer – “Yes, she’s the best-selling writer of all time BUT…” It seems that at every turn, a lot of detractors like to point out that Christie’s twist endings were done elsewhere before her (similar accusations have been made to Crooked House in regards to another Ellery Queen mystery), suggesting that even her skills as a plotter (the one concession it seems a lot of those critics are willing to make) is even unfounded. Now that Invisisble Host has been reprinted, maybe this will put down some of those outcries when readers realize the two books may share ideas but – crucially – in execution they are very different. I haven’t yet read the book, but as an unabashed Christie fanatic (I think I get to wear Brad’s #1 fan badge when he retires it), I can’t help but respond to those critics by saying, “It may have been done elsewhere, but it’s Christie’s take that we remember.”

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    • I’m unaware of eny explicit accusations of plagiarism, but this and ATTWN are similar in the way that every large family gathering to see how the elderly patriarch is going to screw them over in his will story is the same — once you get into the details, it’s obvious that so much scope makes for very different outcomes.

      However, yeah, I can believe that people who like to knock Christie will just seize it as a chance to knock Christie. So let ’em — if not over this, they’ll find something else,then something else, then something else. I wish people would put that much thoroughness into something that actually mattered, y’ know?

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  8. This was a neat read. I figured out where it was going fairly quickly and some of the murder schemes… worked out a bit too conveniently, but it moved along quickly enough that it wasn’t a problem. I just kind of felt most of the deaths themselves weren’t particularly interesting. The first death was the most entertaining one for me and I wish the others got a little bit more proper build-up instead of “look over there! now look over here. yep, they’re dead. got you again, suckers!!”

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    • Yeah, the repetition of the deaths did end up escalating a little too quickly — as I said above, the contents of an hour seem very condensed in places — but I agree this was swift, fun, and well worth reading. It’ll be great to pick up their other works without the preconceptions of “Oh, this is just Title X” and so be ble to discuss them on their own terms. A very wise decision by DSP, making all four available at the same time.

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  9. Pingback: Notas da Semana 09/05/2022 | paula simoes' blog

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