Any review of a book promoted with a tagline of “was this the inspiration for Agatha Christie’s ‘And Then There Were None’?” is of course beholden to address that very question, so let’s get that thorny issue out of the way by confidently stating hmmm, Well It Depends…
Curtis Evans certainly lays out a seductive argument for the prosecution (or is it the defence?) in his introduction to the new Dean Street Press reissue of the 1930 novel ‘The Invisible Host’ by American wife and husband team of Gwen Bristow and Bruce Manning. In it Evans argues that whilst it may be a stretch to say that Christie could have read the book itself, there is a strong possibility she would have seen the successful 1934 Hollywood film before embarking on her own novel that would be first published half a decade later in 1939. Indeed, so successful was the film that its title of ‘The Ninth Guest’ was adopted for subsequent editions of the American novel. It is certainly true that at first glance the similarities between the two books are striking, at least in their basic premise: A group of individuals gathered by an unknown host to a location where they are cut off from the outside world and, one by one, summarily ‘knocked off’. Yet beyond those foundations I would have to say that the case for the defence (or is it the prosecution) is distinctly less coherent, despite Evans’ best efforts to convince us otherwise, and despite ‘The Invisible Host’ being a highly entertaining and recommended little read.
Certainly anyone coming to Manning and Bristow’s book being familiar with ‘And Then There Were None’ will almost immediately begin to doubt the evidence presented by the prosecution/defence, as the bespoke invitations to Christie’s cast are instead replaced by a single default telegram to those of ‘The Invisible Host’. And whilst none of Christie’s ‘victims’ are previously known to each other, Bristow and Manning on the other hand create distinct connections between their characters which in turn lend potential motives to certain killings, even if they may not conclusively turn out to be true.
Indeed, that rather vile version of the rhyme that Christie uses to title her book (and the fictional island on which it is set) also suggests her methods of murder. And if at times this involves rather a stretch of the imagination, it’s also rather an amusing conceit. Bristow and Manning on the other hand design their executions more around the particular personality traits of the party guests, and whilst Christie allows an element of this into her own macabre methods, she at least has the decency not to have one character die simply as punishment for having bad taste!
This different configuration of the cast of characters/victims also means significant differences between the reasons for each being assembled in their place of incarceration and/or execution in the first place. Christie makes a point of giving each of hers a backstory involving deaths that may, or may not to varying degrees, be interpreted as cases of pre-meditated murder. A sense of Justice Will Be Done prevails, even if it is at times deliciously warped and perverted around slinky notions of the supernatural and psychological. Bristow and Manning, on the other hand, make no bones about the fact that their victims are collected solely for their rather selfish and self-serving personalities. There are suggestions of social rather than criminal justice being at work here, with the occasional reference to communism hinting perhaps at where Bristow and Mannings’ sensibilities lie. Certainly as journalists covering stories in New Orleans and Louisiana in the early 20th Century they must have been acutely aware of social injustice, which in itself throws in the rather distasteful irony of the notoriously unpleasant nursery rhyme that gave Christie’s book its original title…
Bristow and Manning have no such compunction, and indeed its this rather dark gleeful quality that raises ‘The Invisible Host’ somewhat above the ranks of innumerable other novels hastily penned and published in the pre-Pulp Fiction fashion for crime stories in the 1920s and ’30s. Crisply-paced, its thrills are brief and well executed (if you’ll excuse the pun), but it does rather run out of breath a little early, with the denouement feeling somewhat abruptly arrived at. The challenge of wrapping things up neatly is of course a not insignificant part of the challenge presented by such a conceit and is, one might argue, always doomed to disappoint at least in some small way. Bristow, Manning and Christie all fall foul of this challenge to a greater or lesser extent and it probably comes as no surprise that the American duo’s solution is the more pedestrian and slightly less convoluted (though perhaps more believable) of the two. Such writerly complications are not a million miles away from the those concocted for themselves by authors of Locked Room mysteries, of course, for whom the biggest motivation too often appears to be showing off how clever they are. Christie, Bristow and Manning should be congratulated for avoiding the worst excesses of those temptations at least.
Suggestions then that with ‘The Invisible Host’ Manning and Bristow might have invented the particular fictional trope of unknown murderer with guests as helpless (and occasionally hapless) victims will no doubt be argued over at innumerable dinner parties and gatherings from here unto eternity. And whilst one rather hopes such parties will be somewhat less dangerous than the ones captured in their novels, one would also expect there to be little argument about why Christie’s became the best selling mystery of all time and ‘The Invisible Host’ an admittedly entertaining footnote.
A new edition of ‘The Invisible Host’ with an introduction by Curtis Evans is published in paperback and eBook formats on October 4th 2021 by Dean Street Press.