THE INVISIBLE HOST (And the Many Mysteries Surrounding It)

Here’s the first mystery . . . 

How does it happen that, on this day of all days, two men on opposite sides of the Atlantic decided to spend part of their Sunday writing a review of this book? That the Puzzle Doctor In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel got his review out before mine can be explained by the fact that he is operating in a different time zone; plus, he is pushing ninety and always goes to bed early on a school night. Sweet dreams, PD. 

The book in question is The Invisible Host, the 1930 mystery writing debut of husband-and-wife team Gwen Bristow and Bruce Manning. Go ahead and read the Puzzle Doctor’s review here. I agree with much of his descriptions. We even share the opinion that you should read this book, but we have different reasons. He says it’s “a really fun read and well worth your time, while part of me thinks you should read this really quickly and not think about it too hard while reading in order to keep your enjoyment level up. 

The reason you should read this book is that there is a juicy, probably unsolvable, mystery surrounding it, and it’s better than anything you will find in the novel itself. PD tossed it off with a few words. My friend Kate of Crossexaminingcrime, whose review came out a long while back, (so long ago that it might have been one of the book’s original reviews), goes deeper into the literary mystery surrounding this book. You can read that here. I have to say that Kate’s conclusions are so startling that I had to respond. 

The third mystery – which I cannot solve either – revolves around the issues of bias. I have an opinion here, and what’s more I know I’m right. However, my opinion, and my certainty of it, are based on the experience of a single lifetime that happens to be my own, and even I must concede that no single person’s experience can give their opinion greater credence than that of another person.

The reason I’m sitting here writing this thing, the reason I have posted hundreds of articles over the past six years for your erudition, consideration, and opinion, is that when I was eleven years old I read a book about eight strangers who are invited by a mysterious host to a chic, modern, yet isolated home. There they meet the servants and are treated to a fine meal. Their domestic comfort is disrupted when a voice pierces the air, shattering their complacency. At that point, they begin to die, one by one. Their efforts to save themselves are mitigated by the dawning understanding that their captor and killer is one of their party. 

That, essentially, is the plot of The Invisible Host, and yet that, of course (and you know this!) is not the book I read. I read a book that came out nine years later, a book whose quality leaves that of Bristow and Manning’s little story in the dust. And yet . . . is that a biased opinion? Do I feel that I owe Agatha Christie’s masterpiece my loyalty because she – and it – are the reason I’m here today? 

Was Christie influenced by this book when she plotted her own novel? I mean, there are a lot of surface similarities: the mysterious host, the disembodied accusing voice, the rising hysteria of the guests as their number is lessened, even a ruse that the murderers of both books attempt. And let’s face it: Dean Street Press, who just republished the book with its original (fabulous) cover, has added the question at the bottom for all to see: “Was it the inspiration for Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None?” In his fine introduction to the book, Curtis Evans confronts the issue head-on and then coyly sidesteps a final judgment. 

I’m not going to sidestep it, but then I’m not going to solve it either. Hell, what do know??? But I can’t review TIH without viewing it alongside ATTWN (sheesh, even the initials of Christie’s novel are better!) And I have to ask myself if this is an even BIGGER mystery. For what some of you may not know is that Agatha Christie is not the only top drawer mystery author who came up with this idea, which brings up the conundrum of Ellery Queen. Here’s Francis Nevins, describing the situation for cousins Frederick Dannay and Manfred B. Lee after publishing Calamity Town, a wholly new kind of mystery (for them), in 1940:

After such a powerful novel, what do you do for an encore? Dannay and Lee weren’t sure that Calamity Town with its radical departures from earlier Queen novels would be a success and deliberately planned their next book as a return to the old manner, rich in convoluted plotting and deductive masterstrokes. Much of the work was probably done in the summer of 1942, during the three months the radio series was on hiatus, but there’s reason to believe that part of the plot dates back to the novel Fred and Manny were working on in 1939 when they discovered that Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, then being serialized in the Saturday Evening Post, had a similar plot.

It makes more sense that fellow American authors Dannay and Lee would be aware of Bristow and Manning’s book than Christie. And while Christie might have seen Owen Davis’ stage adaptation when it played in England, Ellery Queen was more likely to have watched the film version that appeared in 1934 and, like the play, was re-titled The Ninth Guest. (More about the film later.) Which means . . . what? Could Ellery Queen have, consciously or unconsciously, lifted elements from the earlier book for a new mystery of their own? And, if so, tear it up upon learning that Agatha Christie had, quite possibly . . . done the very same thing??

The final mystery – and I’m sorry, folks, but none of these are solvable – is whether or not Bristow and Manning’s book would have gained something approaching classic status if Christie’s book had not ever seen the light of day. I tend to think not, and for evidence rather than opinion I offer the fact that The Invisible Host seemed to have all but disappeared from the public eye by 1939, thus making the mystery of Christie’s awareness more, er, mysterious. 

And if you want opinion rather than evidence, my opinion – which differs from Kate’s so you really should read her review – is that, point by point, the 1930 book pales in comparison to the 1939 masterpiece. And in honor of the better book’s alternative title(s), I offer ten reasons below:

What a nice dinner party this isn’t!!

ONE: Both books begin with the introduction, one by one, of the characters as they contemplate the mysterious invitation they have received.

Bristow and Manning present their characters as a version of La Ronde, where one person’s thoughts lead to the introduction of the next person. This is clever, but it’s briefly done, and while we get light descriptions of each person, they can’t compare with the portraits Christie gives us of her guests. Plus, the repetition of each introduction in Host does not give us the sense of convergence to a fateful point that we get from Christie.

TWO: The characters in Bristow and Manning’s book all know each other. The characters in Christie are all strangers. 

Kate liked the fact that the people in Host are acquainted. I think the gathering of strangers works better. It might be that the folks in Christie’s novel are British and more likely to observe social niceties. But I think that is something that happens when strangers get together in a social setting. (I’m always very nice to my fellow guests when I stay in a hotel, even if they are noisy and rude.) As Host progresses, the facts surrounding the troubled relationships between the victims is lengthened, even to the point of being dumped upon us, and all I could ask myself is why these folks stayed for dinner with each other. They HATE each other. Surely at least one of them would have been less focused on their own ego (all are assured in their invitation that the party is in their honor) and intelligent enough to question that these people would attend such a party. 

“We were just all accused of murder! . . . . . . . now, what was your bid, General?”

THREE: The disembodied voice in Christie makes an initial announcement and then is never heard from again. The voice in Bristow and Manning’s book never shuts up!

It . . . never . . . shuts . . . up!!! Kate liked this, so it’s clearly a matter of opinion. Here’s a sample: 

“‘Attend then, the whims of my guest of honor. You will meet him, and perhaps like him.’
“‘Guest of honor?’ repeated Tim. ‘Another maniac?’
“‘His name’, said the voice, ‘is Death.’
“‘My God!’ exclaimed Peter.
“The voice went on.
“‘He is, my friends, neither savage nor heartless. True, you have been brought here to die. But you are but eight excrescences of civilization – why should you not die? All of you will die. If I had not invited you here you would live a few years longer, it is true, but at the end you would die simple, common deaths – deaths that might be experienced by any sweeper or charwoman. You would die perhaps in bed, of painful but not extraordinary disease; or you would meet death in the form of a carelessly driven automobile on a commonplace street; at best you would die in an airplane crash, similar to those in which so many ordinary people have died. But you, my eight friends, are worthy of more gracious death. You are worthy of unique modes of exit from the world that has applauded you. You are worthy of laughing, exquisite death. This is the death I shall give you. One by one, you shall die tonight the deaths you merit.’”

After a few chapters like this, I can better understand why one of the characters commits suicide. As for the guests, the Americans blather out accusations against each other while the British keep it close to the vest. One of the great side effects of this is that Christie keeps letting us into her characters’ heads – including the murderer’s – which adds to the tension in ways that all those folks screaming at each other in New Orleans can’t hold a candle to.

Everyone in Host gets this; I prefer the personalized invitations in ATTWN

FOUR: The different settings – New Orleans penthouse vs. deserted island – each have their pluses, but ultimately Christie’s setting makes for better storytelling.

I agree with Kate that there’s a nice claustrophobic feeling throughout Host, but ultimately the lack of anywhere to go becomes stultifying. Despite the fact that there are a bunch of murders here, this is the talkiest mystery in my memory. The guests start chatting about death at dinner, before their host manifests itself; the host, as I mentioned, talks a mile a minute, and every murder provokes more and more conversation. At the same time, it takes forever to get to the point – meaning, the first murder. I’ll put it mathematically, since the Puzzle Doctor is himself a professor of maths. The Invisible Host is 185 pages long, and the first murder occurs on page 83. (I will agree with PD: this is a humdinger of a death, the best in the book.) My copy of And Then There Were None comes in at 183 pages, and the first murder occurs on page 46. Interestingly, both murders are by poison, and both serve to stun the guests into realizing that The Voice means business. All I can say is that Christie’s murder – and the conversation leading up to it – gets to the point with greater clarity and start the guests off on a game of Mounting Panic. In Host, the panic has set in long before the first murder, and it just keeps erupting over and over again.  

FIVE: Motive, motive, motive!

There is no contest here. Although in both cases we have a lunatic mowing down folks for a reason, in Christie’s book that motive is crisp and clear and epic. The murderer in Host gets a chance to explain themselves, and although they go on and on and on, I didn’t buy the idea that nobody there could have added up all the reasons people hated each other and not come up with this one common denominator. Plus, some of the motives were so niggling that it lessened the effect. (Oddly enough you have to respect murderers in the end for their motive, or things fall apart.)

SIX: Never underestimate the power of a nursery rhyme!

Christie’s use of the rhyme provides structure, fear, and offers the reader clues on various fronts, from the murder method to the conspiracy within the murder plot. The childlike charm of the rhyme takes on a sickeningly sinister turn when put to such evil use as a killer’s blueprint. While the culprit in Host keeps insisting that they have a plan, including an order of death, it relies on so much chance, and the way the killer explains how they would have handled any unexpected exigencies doesn’t make sense. Which leads me to . . . 

SEVEN: Never depend on technology when you have the use of your own two hands.

Kate offers some interesting theories as to the Gothic origins of Bristow and Manning’s story. I suppose we can also look to pulp fiction and American know-how – all those invisible death-rays and crazy inventions – to see where the murder plot in Host would be of interest to U.S. readers. But I don’t buy it. Nor do I buy the way the killer claims to use psychology to guide the plot along. The film makes the wise choice to eliminate a lot of this, such as a couple of chairs that serve extraordinary purposes in the book. Much of the mind-speak is based on tired old social beliefs, making Host feel dated while ATTWN still feels fresh. I know Kate liked the crazy gadgets and surprise weapons. Maybe I’m just an old-fashioned guy, but give me a gun, an axe, a nice hypo filled with chloral hydrate, and I’m happy. 

EIGHT: Speaking of films, it’s always a bad sign when the movie is better than the book. 

You can watch 1934’s The Ninth Guest on YouTube, and it’s pretty delightful. I could go into great detail over the improvements it made to the book, but I won’t. Suffice it to say, it’s more succinct and has great production values. The acting might make the killer’s identity more pronounced than it was in the book; so, too, does the change in one key motive to make the film conform to hundreds of its contemporary film cousins. (Read the play The Cat and the Canary or William Everson’s The Detective in Film if you don’t know what I’m talking about.) And there is the inclusion of a comic servant because . . . well, I guess film studios believed that these films were soooo suspenseful that audiences needed comic relief in the form of a clumsy boob. (I say they were wrong.) All in all, the film is an improvement on the novel. Not so any of the dozen or so adaptations of And Then There Were None. Many are entertaining and feature fine actors. A good number of them show great respect for the source material. Most of them botch the ending . . . but then they were led to that by the author herself. I will just say that anyone who claims to know Christie’s book by having only watched it is a fool. 

Available on YouTube

NINE: Christie crafts a better puzzle with a better solution.

There is one fine clue to the identity of the killer in The Invisible Host . . . although, when I look at the quotation I included above, I’m not so sure how perfectly it works. (It works better in the film.) And I’m not going to argue here that And Then There Were None comes anywhere close to being one of her better-clued mysteries, although the clues that the killer points to at the end are interesting. From start to finish, however, Christie takes us from point to point in a more satisfying way, especially in how she sends her characters on a journey of self-discovery. Over and over, Bristow and Manning have characters suggest that someone in the house is “responsible” for the murders, but nobody explains how they come by that feeling or how any of the people could accomplish this. I don’t find a satisfactory explanation for that in the book or the movie, at least one that I am willing to swallow. The people trapped on Soldier Island, however, go through a logical process to determine that the killer is among their ranks, and the conflicts they all feel between wanting to save themselves and trying not to fall apart are beautifully rendered. The suspense builds and builds in Christie, while in Host it starts in panic mode and has nowhere to go. And even if the clueing isn’t perfect, the identity of Christie’s killer makes total sense. In Host, it has a more random quality to it. 

TEN: Ultimately, comparisons don’t matter. 

It’s hardly fair, in fact, to compare the first effort of a pair of newlyweds looking for a way to work together against the twenty-ninth novel by a firmly established master of the genre – maybe the master! Read both books for yourself and decide. Bristow and Manning have crafted an entertaining thriller, and if they somehow inspired the brilliant novel that followed in 1939, who am I not to say . . . . . thanks. I actually see more of an influence on the Saw franchise: The Voice is as insufferable, er, as important a presence as Jigsaw, and the quick ratcheting up of panic as fiendish devices make mincemeat of essentially unpleasant people deserving of their fate is similar in both. In his review, the Puzzle Doctor also called attention to one of my favorite episodes of The Avengers, the one called “The Superlative Seven.” I always thought that was based on Christie’s book, but, hey, I’m not greedy. Give the credit to Bristow and Manning. I don’t think it will damage Agatha Christie’s reputation one little bit.