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.
The crime novels of Gwen Bristow and Bruce Manning, reprinted by Dean Street Press:
- The Invisible Host, a.k.a. The Ninth Guest (1930)
- The Gutenberg Murders (1931)
- The Mardi Gras Murders (1932)
- Two and Two Makes Twenty-Two (1932)
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!