Over several years in the early 1930s the spousal writing team of Gwen Bristow (1903-1980) and Bruce Manning (1900-1965) published four crime novels: The Invisible Host, which possibly inspired Agatha Christie’s classic mystery And Then There Were None, The Gutenberg Murders, Two and Two Make Twenty-Two and The Mardi Gras Murders. The couple later went on to enjoy highly successful careers in entertainment, she writing historical fiction, including her bestselling Plantation Trilogy, he writing screenplays in Hollywood in Hollywood, including most of the scripts for the hugely popular films of youthful star Deanna Durbin. Before turning to writing crime fiction and these other rewarding pursuits, however, Bristow and Manning had already experienced more than their share of real life crime, including a great deal of bloody murder, during their time as Roaring Twenties newspaper reporters working the mean moonlight and magnolia streets of New Orleans, Louisiana. Bristow, a diminutive but daring brunette originally from South Carolina, particularly distinguished herself as what George W. Healy, Jr., a colleague of hers at the New Orleans Times-Picayune, the Bayou State’s leading newspaper, termed “our star sob sister.” Although “sob sister” was a somewhat condescending term for women journalists covering human interest stories (the most interesting of which invariably concerned murder), another of Bristow’s colleague’s recalled of her, with what he no doubt meant as the highest of praise: “She was the kind of woman reporter you’d send to do the type of story you’d send a man on. She was perfectly capable of doing it.”
Bristow proved just how capable she was of doing nasty jobs in 1927, a banner year for bizarre and grisly killings in Louisiana, even by the old colonial French colony’s own impressive Baroque Gothic standard. First there came in July the murder of Morgan City utility company engineer James LeBoeuf. Murder in this case was only outed when the engineer’s bloated body, which had been submerged with three hundred pounds of railroad irons in the depths of Lake Palourde, was exposed by receding water in the aftermath of the Great Mississippi River Flood. James’s unfaithful wife Ada, the mother of the couple’s four young children, was arrested and brought to trial for his shocking murder, along with an older, socially distinguished local doctor named Thomas Dreher, with whom Ada had been having a torrid affair. The trial, which dragged on for two years, became an immediate sensation in the state and even made national newspaper headlines, with Ada LeBoeuf finally becoming the first white woman in the state’s history to be judicially executed. The state hanged Dr. Dreher as well, on the same day as Ada.
Along with her colleague, drama critic Kenneth Thomas Knoblock (who later authored three crime novels himself, including one which drew directly on the infamous Moity murders; see below), Bristow handled coverage of the LeBoeuf-Dreher trial for the Times-Picayune. She “manfully” detailed every aspect of the affair for her readers, despite admitting in an anguished letter to her mother, written after the guilty verdicts had been handed down, that her job exacted an enormous emotional toll on her. The two year LeBoeuf-Dreher trial was “the most horrible experience I ever had,” she confided. “When I rushed into the Western Union office behind the courtroom to flash my story, my hand was shaking so I could hardly write. I slept only three hours that night….”
For Dr. Dreher the journalist held no mercy in her heart whatsoever, coldly claiming that she could without qualm have hanged him herself, yet of his paramour she wrote with measured sympathy:
[W]hile Ada LeBoeuf deserves hanging if anyone ever did, and had I been on the jury I’d have brought in the same verdict, you know and I know, and they know that she is being punished for her background just as much as she is for her sins. Born into a squalid home, reared in squalid surroundings, married when she was sixteen to a good ordinary fellow who was just about as interesting as the kitchen sink, years of having babies and cooking and scrubbing and wiping the babies’ noses—of course she was thrilled at the attentions of the most prominent physician in town, and of course she went to pieces….
Bristow proved considerably more hard-boiled when, about four months after the James LeBoeuf murder, she and her colleague George Healy found themselves on the scene of a ghastly double trunk slaying in the French Quarter. Four days before All Hallows’ Eve on the morning of October 27, black “scrub woman” Nettie Compass, who lived in the back of the small stucco French creole style two and a half story building at 715 Ursulines Street with her husband Rocky and daughter Beatrice, trudged upstairs to clean at the second-story apartment of housepainter Henry Moity and his wife Theresa, a couple who lived unharmoniously in cramped and dingy quarters with their three small children and Theresa’s sister Leonide, who recently had left her own husband, Henry’s brother Joseph, and two children. Discovering a pool of blood seeping out from under the door to the Moity’s apartment and down the stairs, Nettie promptly fled for her life, screaming for help in classic crime novel fashion.
Nettie’s cries attracted the two insurance salesmen who ran a business next door. After a brief inspection of the premises one of the men, Frank Silva, doubtlessly did what any other true blue American would have done. He alerted the press, which soon arrived on the scene in the form of the Times-Picayune’s intrepid George Healy. Silva, Healy and several local neighbors affected entry into the Moity apartment, where they found more blood on the floor and a large, partially open trunk in the couple’s bedroom. Upon lifting the lid of the trunk, Healy discovered a dismembered woman’s body, its severed limbs and head piled over the torso. Healy then doubtlessly did what any other true blue American reporter would have done. He alerted his city desk, asking for a lady reporter to be sent to the scene as soon as possible to help chronicle this blockbuster story. He also suggested that the city desk might want to get in touch with the police and the parish coroner.
Star sob sister Gwen Bristow arrived on the scene at the same time as the coroner, George F. Rowling, but she was in no way intimidated or inhibited by this man’s official presence, bounding into the apartment at his side and immediately sighting several repellent objects on the bed in the Moitys’ bedroom. “Look,” she ghoulishly announced as she held these loathsome items up for the others in the room to descry, “ladyfingers.” Four human fingers they were, severed from a woman’s hand. Placing the “ladyfingers” back on the bed, Bristow then charged into the second bedroom, where Leonine had slept, and thereupon discovered a second trunk with another woman’s body. The disjointed bodies being identified as those of the Moity wives, New Orleans Police Superintendent Thomas Healy, a “ruddy, pot-bellied Irishman” (who was no relation to George, though the two men had an amicable relationship), sent out an all-station bulletin calling for the arrest of the dead women’s husbands.
Joseph Moity soon turned himself in the authorities, opining all the while that his brother Henry, driven to madness by Theresa’s wanton ways with other men and resenting Leonide’s influence over her sister, had committed the murder and fled; this indeed proved to be the case. There followed another bulletin from Superintendent Healey to the seven ships which had sailed from New Orleans on the day of the murders, warning their crews to keep a lookout for a desperate man with “dark, bushy hair,” “very dark brown eyes” and a tattoo mark on his arm, depicting a flower with a woman’s face and a nude female body.
The telltale tattoo did the trick and Henry, who had been working under an assumed name as a deck hand on a fishing lugger on Bayou Lafourche, soon was identified and turned over to the police. Once confronted with the ghastly killings, Henry attempted to pin the blame on a big, red-haired, psychotic Norwegian sailor he had dreamed up, but soon he broke down and confessed to the awful crimes. He admitted that after hearing rumors his unhappy wife was planning to run off to enjoy a new life with Joseph Caruso, the Moitys’ landlord and the owner of a store on the ground floor of the building, he became possessed with thoughts of killing her and her meddlesome sister. Catching sight of Nettie Compass on the evening before the murders, the cleaner recalled, he had whispered to her not to be frightened if she and her family heard the Moity children crying in the early morning hours. A few hours later, Henry after a heavy bout of drinking stabbed Theresa and Leonide to death, then expertly disjointed their bodies and deposited the pieces in the trunks. (His former employment as a butcher proved most helpful in this regard.) After cleansing himself of his bloody work in the bathroom he gathered the children and deposited them at a relative’s and made his futile attempt at escape.
At the conclusion of his trial the next year Henry was sentenced to life imprisonment for the murders. Deemed a model prisoner by prison authorities, he was eventually placed under minimal supervision and as a result casually strolled to freedom by catching a cab in 1944. Although he was recaptured two years later, Henry received a pardon from Louisiana’s governor in 1948, on the ground that he had committed the murders during a fit of temporary insanity (i.e., that bout of heavy drinking). It is interesting, and perhaps instructive, to compare the difference in the punishments which the state meted out to Ada LeBeouf for peripheral involvement in the murder of her husband and to Henry Moity for the bestial slaying and dismemberment of his wife and her sister. Eight years later Henry, now residing in California, went on to shoot his current girlfriend, who luckily survived the murder attempt. For this crime he was sentenced to a term in prison at Folsom State Prison, where he passed away the next year.
George Healy and Gwen Bristow covered the Moity murder trial from start to finish, Healy writing the straight news report and Bristow the imaginative “color” (i.e., the sob sister stuff). However, near the end of the trial the two reporters, having become rather bored with the whole sordid mess, secretly switched bylines. George ruefully admitted that his color was not up to Bristow’s impeccable standard and that it “was my last attempt to write like a woman.” While he did not divulge how successfully Bristow had written “like a man” on this occasion, certainly she proved able to put her experiences covering murder trials to good use when she wrote four crime novels in collaboration with another male, her husband Bruce Manning, a fellow New Orleans newspaper reporter with black hair, dancing eyes and an infectious grin, whom she met and married while covering the LeBoeuf-Dreher trial.
Gwen Bristow had the unlikeliest of backgrounds for a hard-boiled Jazz Age woman reporter, having been the sheltered daughter of a prominent southern Baptist minister, but from an early age she had chafed at attempts to restrain her independent spirit with conservative notions of proper decorum. In later years she bemusedly recalled her life from 1920 to 1924 at Judson College, a highly proper Baptist women’s school in the small “Black Belt” town of Marion, Alabama, where by her own account students lived in constant fear of condemnation for engaging in conduct deemed “unladylike.” (Before transferring to Judson College she had briefly attended another Baptist women’s school, Anderson University in Anderson, South Carolina, her native state.)
“On Sundays we marched to church two and two, the seniors at the head of the line in their caps and gowns and the rest of us dressed in dark blue uniforms in winter and white ones in spring,” she reminisced in 1940. “We were allowed to go shopping in the village, but if one of us spoke to a man on the street she was placed in restrictions.” A year at the Pulitzer School of Journalism at Columbia University in New York loosened Bristow’s remaining inhibitions, however, which were then fully undone when she secured her job with the Times-Picayune in 1925, when she was just twenty-two. Many years later in 1971, after she had become a bestselling novelist, she wrote a friend complaining of being asked continually to deliver commencement addresses at her pious alma maters, pointedly confiding: “Those little schools that my parents sent me to were simply dreadful places for me. I was a total misfit. I simply could not fit the mold that the pupils were supposed to fit, and I felt like the man in Victor Hugo’s Man Who Laughs, stuffed into a bottle to make him grow into a monstrosity. Well, I broke out of the bottle and I can’t get back into it and I am not going to try.”
Doubtlessly Bruce Manning, whom friends nicknamed “pixie” and “leprechaun” on account of Irish heritage, shortish stature (he stood about 5’8”) and impish humor, was the sort of endearing male charmer whom censorious Judson College authorities strove to deny any chance of dalliance with their young ladies. One of four children of railroad conductor John Francis McCurran and his wife Helen Manning, both of whom were of Irish Catholic descent, Bruce Manning was born in Jersey City, New Jersey and grandly christened Georgium Henricum McCurran—a name he later changed, as he bluntly put it, for “ethnic reasons.” Before meeting Bristow, Manning had already been married and divorced, after producing a daughter, his only child, from the brief union. Although in newspaper accounts Bristow and Manning both claimed that he had come south in order to improve his health, Manning’s daughter avowed that her mother’s stern father had insisted after his daughter’s divorce that Manning get out of their lives entirely. Perhaps it was this sense that coming south had been good for Manning’s health.
Bristow and Manning wed at the courthouse at Franklin, Louisiana, cite of the LeBoeuf-Dreher murder trial, on January 14, 1929, just eighteen days before the condemned lovers, now convicted killers, were hanged. Supposedly neither of the reporters had had the heart to cover Ada’s imminent execution, so they got out of the assignment by explaining that they would be away together on their honeymoon. Of course this tale may have been embellished, as stories about the couple often were later, after they both had achieved renown. Publicly Manning not only drastically changed his name and omitted ever to make mention of his prior marriage and child, but he also altered his place of birth from commonplace Jersey City, New Jersey to euphonious Cuddebackville in Orange County, New York, a summer vacation spot where his parents possibly conceived him. One newspaper account of his marriage with Bristow even got his country of origin wrong, romantically referring to him as a “handsome Englishman.”
Although it would seem that Manning could not have been all that fervent of a Catholic, Bristow’s strict Baptist parents nevertheless were rather less than enchanted with his marriage to their daughter, her mother’s hands even curling into fists, Bristow recalled, when she imparted the dreadful news to them. However, the union of the man and wife, whom their friends and work colleagues considered an uncommonly amusing and amicable couple, would last for thirty-six years, until Manning’s death in 1965, surviving, it appears, occasional indiscretions from Bruce, including possibly a brief affair with crime writer Vera Caspary, author of the celebrated novel Laura (see below). The newlyweds moved into an apartment in a four-story building of enchantingly mellowed rose brick originally constructed in 1820 that was located at 627 Ursulines Street, just down the street from the humbler, ill-starred cite of the Moity murders. Two other childless couples and an unmarried man comprised their neighbors in the building. The quite reasonable charge was $30 a month, or about $465 today. If life came cheap in the French Quarter, so did the rent.
Gwen and Bruce’s first home together unexpectedly provided the couple with inspiration for their first crime novel, The Invisible Host. Bristow amusingly recalled the strange birth of their debut 1930 mystery a decade later in her autobiographical pamphlet Gwen Bristow: A Self-Portrait. In addition to their journalism both spouses in 1929 were trying their hands at novel writing, albeit with little good fortune. The natural challenge of writing, it seems, was compounded by a noisome male neighbor who insisted on perpetually playing his prized radio from morning to night:
It was not easy to write at home for the tranquility of our apartment was persistently broken by the man next door, who had the loudest and most raucous radio I ever heard, which he played from nine o’clock every morning until eleven o’clock every night. Requests, threats, even appeals to the police had no effect on the mechanical screams that poured form his window, and we could not find another comfortable apartment at a price we could afford to pay. Bruce and I got some spiritual relief by devising various schemes to murder that man without being caught up with. One evening at dinner, with the radio blaring next door, we made up an exceptionally diabolical plan of murder. While we were polishing it up the idea struck us that this particular plot against our neighbor could be written, and might be sold, and might bring us enough money to enable us to move….We worked on the story every evening, chuckling with fiendish glee at the yells of the radio and wondering what the man would think if he could know the horrible things we were doing to him. I don’t suppose he ever read the book; nobody who enjoyed that quantity and kind of nose would be likely to read very much.
The book was called “The Invisible Host”….
Quite possibly this irksome, radio blaring neighbor was one William Ambrose Spencer, a twenty-five-year-old aviation mechanic from Texas who lived alone in the building at 627 Usulines Avenue. One of the many murder victims in Bristow and Manning’s exceptionally bloodthirsty novel, which makes prominent use of a radio, is an electrical technician who is himself fatally electrocuted by the fiendish killer. Before the horrified eyes of the assembled guests at the deadly penthouse (all of whom are themselves marked for death), the corpse of a “young man, impeccably attired in evening dress,” tumbles out from a narrow coffin-like enclosure—the unfortunate technician, whose name is never given. By 1934 the real life William Ambrose Spencer had left New Orleans for Hangchow, China, where he had obtained a position at the city’s Central Aviation School, presumably taking his radio with him; but by this time Bristow and Manning had themselves taken leave of the Crescent City.
Remarkably, before the manuscript of Bristow and Manning’s The Invisible Host was even published as a book, it already had been adapted for the stage under the title The Ninth Guest by prolific playwright Owen Davis, whose work includes the “old dark house” mystery The Haunted House, adaptations of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome, Jezebel, the basis of the Oscar-winning Bette Davis-Henry Fonda film, and Mr. and Mrs. North, a play based on the popular mystery tales of another American husband and wife writing team, Frances and Richard Lockridge. Although The Ninth Guest enjoyed limited success on Broadway after it premiered at the Eltinge 42nd Street Theater on August 25, 1930, where it ran for seventy-two performances, it made a hit with lesser venues around the country, as well as with high schools, and it is still performed today. Noted American film director Peter Bogdanovich has fondly recalled acting in a 1954 primary school performance of the play, which he tellingly termed “an Agatha Christie-like suspense piece,” when he was only fifteen.
Bristow and Manning’s manuscript was published in book form in November 1930, about a month after the play closed, under the title The Invisible Host. The publisher was an unusual transient entity known as the Mystery League, an enterprise which had come into being five months earlier in June. Sponsored by United Cigar Stores, a national cigar store chain with 1500 establishments across the country, the Mystery League planned to publish twenty-four crime novels a year, which were to be made available to mystery avid purchasers not only at United Cigar’s shops but the Whelan Drugstore chain, with which United Cigar was affiliated, and certain regional department stores.
Today the Mystery League books, attractively jacketed in wrappers with colorful art deco designs primarily executed by “Gene” (an elusive individual named Eugene Thurston) and priced to sell at fifty cents apiece (one-fourth the usual rate for a book at the time), are highly sought collector’s items, primarily on account of the jackets, although some of the titles, like Bristow and Manning’s The Invisible Host, are collectible in their own right. Host was graced with one of the finest jackets in the series, which depicted a ghastly scene of grey skyscrapers against a night black background with a giant red skeleton encroaching upon a red lit penthouse atop one of the skyscrapers. It made a memorably grotesque and hauntingly menacing panorama, like something out of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death.”
In The Invisible Host the locus of death is not some Gothic castellated abbey like the one in Poe’s “Masque,” however, but incongruously a modern art deco penthouse, “the smartest thing of its kind in town,” crowning a twenty-two story New Orleans skyscraper, “the shining new Bienville Building.” The guests who are invited to the penthouse, via cheery telegrams anonymously signed “Your Host,” for the party held there on that fatal Saturday night and Sunday morning, are, in order of their introduction in the first chapter of the novel: Margaret (Mrs. Gaylord) Chisolm, the Crescent City’s reigning society hostess; Dr. Murray Chambers Reid, an esteemed, conservative college professor; Jason Osgood, wealthy businessman and civic leader; author Peter Daly; lady attorney Sylvia Inglesby; Irish political boss Tim Slamon; dilettante Hank Abbott; and beautiful Hollywood actress Jean Trent.
Not one of the eight guests professes to know who their host is, but soon enough this mysterious person speaks to them at the penthouse, not in person but over the radio air waves. Macabrely the invisible host promises the assembled guests a most entertaining game of chance, in which they all must try to avoid getting killed by morning. (The exits from the penthouse have all been wired to electrocute anyone attempting to escape before then.) Who, if anyone, will survive the invisible host’s grimly amusing game until daybreak? Readers are virtually compelled to read on and see.
In his syndicated “Saturday Book Table” column, Charles B. Coates wrote enthusiastically of both the ingenuity of The Invisible Host and the innovation of its publisher the Mystery League, who “has gone into the book business with Henry Ford methods and Henry Ford success”:
Over at the corner drugstore—probably between the chocolate malted milk and the automobile accessories—you will find a mystery yarn which is well worth reading….
The book we refer to is “The Invisible Host,” by Gwen Bristow and Bruce Manning….
You may find it hard to believe, but the book has a brand new plot….
The carnage we promise you is fascinating, and the denouement is startling, to say the least. Even the most hard-bitten mystery fan will be pleasantly puzzled, nay stumped, by this ingenious fictional device.
The reviewer in the Detroit Free Press echoed that Bristow and Manning “had a splendid idea for a story of horror….the book is worth considerably more than the 50 cents asked for it. You won’t go to bed with the mystery unsolved, and you’ll be stronghearted if you don’t regret the trip upstairs in the dark.” Spurred on by its publisher’s publicity campaign and Henry Ford production method, its enticing jacket art, its good notices and excellent word of mouth (not to mention its having been adapted as a popular stage play), The Invisible Host scored big with mystery readers.
Rather than the three hundred dollars Bristow and Manning had hoped to make from the novel, allowing them to take a long summer vacation together, the delighted couple found that their first royalty check amounted to nearly four times that, $1150 (nearly $18,000 in modern worth). There were royalty checks each time the play was performed as well. Delighted with these windfalls, Bristow and Manning quit their day jobs and departed New Orleans for the Mississippi gulf coast, where they settled with a cook-housekeeper in an old mansion in the vicinity of the seaside town of Pass Christian. There, in between house and beach parties, they couple wrote their next mystery novel, The Gutenberg Murders (1931), which similarly was published by the Mystery League, as were their final two follow-ups, Two and Two Make Twenty-Two (1932) and The Mardi Gras Murders (1932). However these latter two novels were written after the couple had moved back to New Orleans to economize. (True to their professions, both Bristow and Manning liked to smoke and drink, while Manning also indulged a penchant for games of chance, particularly craps.) Returns on their subsequent detective novels were more modest and in 1932 the couple lost their publisher when United Cigar Stores, which had plunged heavily into the real estate market not long before the onset of the Depression and suffered unsustainable losses after the Great Crash came, went bankrupt.
Bristow went back to work for the Times-Picayune, while Bruce for a New Orleans radio station began industriously writing, directing and acting in some one hundred playlets about a gangster named Angel Face. According to crime writer Vera Caspary, who became a close friend of the couple (particularly Bruce), the crime serial was sponsored by “an ex-bootlegger turned legal by selling canned grape juice which, if allowed to ferment, would become illegal wine.” However, The Invisible Host again scored big for Bristow and Manning in 1933 when Columbia Pictures bought the film rights to the novel. The Ninth Guest, as the film version of the novel was titled, was directed by Roy William Neill, the well-regarded director who helmed eleven of the fourteen Sherlock Holmes films with Basil Rathbone in the title role, and scripted by Garnett Weston, himself an occasional mystery writer who is best known for having written the screenplays to the horror films White Zombie (1932) and Supernatural (1933).
Having caught the Hollywood bug, Manning began composing original stories for the silver screen, one of which was picked up by Hollywood. Encouraged that they had found another pathway to fortune, Bristow again quit her reporting job to write novels, while Manning continued drafting original film treatments. Finally he was signed to a multi-year screenwriting contract by Columbia and the pair moved out to Tinsel Town, after a stint in Connecticut. For Columbia Manning scripted several mystery films, including the first Nero Wolfe movie adaptation, Meet Nero Wolfe (1936), based on Rex Stout’s debut detective novel, Fer de Lance. However, today Manning is by far best known for the scripts that he wrote for a half dozen pictures starring popular youthful actress Deanna Durbin, after he moved over to Universal in 1937. Many years later, Durbin warmly recalled Manning as “one of my favorite people.”
While Manning made his way in Hollywood, Bristow began writing period novels about the American South in the vein of Margaret Mitchell’s massively successful saga Gone with the Wind (1936) and she scored immediate success with her so-called Plantation Trilogy, published between 1937 and 1940, which catapulted her name onto the bestseller lists. Meanwhile Manning’s work as a Hollywood scriptwriter was earning him a steady income of $1000 a week (more than $18,000 today, or nearly $900,000 a year). By 1940 the now affluent couple resided at a $25,000 house with obligatory swimming pool at 726 Rodeo Drive in Beverley Hills. So certainly it would seem that when Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None was published in the United States in January of the year, Bristow and Manning had no pressing financial need to sue the Queen of Crime for plagiarism.
Yet was this a case of plagiarism? The similarity between Bristow and Manning’s The Invisible Host and Christie’s And Then There Were None has been noted by more than commentator, to be sure. Nearly forty years ago crime writer and critic Bill Pronzini in his book Gun in Cheek pointed out that the plot of The Invisible Host is “quite similar” to that of And Then There Were None, but stoutly he added that “Dame Agatha…doubtless was unaware of the existence of, much less had read, The Invisible Host when she conceived her masterpiece; writers of her stature do not look elsewhere for inspiration.” Can we really be so certain of this, however? First of all, Christie need never have heard of, nor much less read, The Invisible Host to have been influenced by it. The novel may not have been published in England, but its 1934 film version played in the mother country. Is it so implausible to imagine that Christie saw the film in London and four or five years later drew on it, possibly unconsciously, when she came to write her brilliant landmark mystery, in the same way that rock star George Harrison, as ruled by an American court, subconsciously copied The Chiffons’ 1963 hit “He’s So Fine” when he composed his huge 1971 global smash “My Sweet Lord”?
Looking at the similarity between the two novels may help us draw our own conclusions. In general both books are about people entrapped within sealed locations (a modernistic penthouse perched atop a New Orleans skyscraper in The Invisible Host, a modernistic mansion perched on a bare rocky island off the English coast in And Then there Were None), who are methodically “executed,” as it were, by a seemingly omnipotent unknown assailant who never appears as such but rather speaks to them through mechanical means (a radio in Host, a record player in None). All of the people (eight in Host, ten in None) hide guilty secrets. Each novel opens with them reading or thinking over their invitations (telegrams in Host, letters in None) to the penthouse/island from their anonymous host (“Your Host” in Host, variations on “U. N. Owen,” i.e., “Unknown,” in None).
I find it instructive directly to compare two of the opening vignettes from the respective novels (first Host, then None):
Mrs. Gaylord Chisholm tore open her yellow envelope with slim aristocratic fingers and read the message twice. A puzzled line came between her eyebrows, then she smiled amusedly.
Under the pale lights of her boudoir Margaret Chisholm had the air of one of those ancient queens whose sculptured profiles look disdainfully down upon posterity. There was a gesture of empire in the very way she touched a flame to the end of her cigarette and held up the telegram to read it again though the blue plumes of smoke.
CONGRATULATIONS STOP PLANS AFOOT FOR SMALL SURPRISE PARTY IN YOUR HONOR BEINVILLE PENTHOUSE NEXT SATURDAY EIGHT O’CLOCK STOP ALL SUB ROSA BIG SURPRISE STOP MAINTAIN SECRECY STOP PROMISE YOU MOST ORIGINAL PARTY EVER STAGED IN NEW ORLEANS (Host)
Vera Claythorne, in a third-class carriage with five other travelers in it, leaned her head back and shut her eyes. How hot it was traveling by train today! It would be nice to get to the sea! Really a great piece of luck getting this job. When you wanted a holiday post it nearly always meant looking after a swarm of children—secretarial holiday posts were much more difficult to get. Even the agency hadn’t held out much hope.
And then the letter had come.
I have received your name from the Skilled Women’s agency together with their recommendation. I understand they know you personally. I shall be glad to pay you the salary you ask and shall expect you to take up your duties on August 8th. The train is the 12.40 from Paddington and you will be met at Oakbridge station. I enclose five L1 notes for expenses. (None)
The vignettes from Host are retained in the film as well, it should be added. (In fact, the opening of Host, where a telegraph operator takes the message over the phone, commenting afterward, “Gee, but that guy had a spooky voice,” is used as the opening of the film.) One of course can counter that, given that both novels have the same plot it is only natural that both would open in such a manner, but, still, the resemblance is striking, to say the least.
Certainly this would not be the only time when a famous Christie work was not entirely original in its devices. The Queen of Crime’s famous play The Mousetrap, the longest running stage play in the history of London’s West End (it opened in 1952 and only closed on March 16, 2020 due to the Covid pandemic), bears some notable similarity to American mystery writer Mary Roberts Rinehart’s and Avery Hopwood’s landmark play The Bat (adapted from Rinehart’s novel The Circular Staircase), which ran on Broadway for 867 performances between August 23, 1920 and September 2, 1922 and launched the entire “old dark house” mystery subgenre that was ubiquitous on stage and film in the Twenties, Thirties and Forties. Even Christie’s famous “Ackroyd trick” in her Hercule Poirot detective novel The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was not original to the author. Other examples could be offered. Yet in the case of And then There Were None it is not just a matter of similar elements being in play, for the entire basic plot idea is the same, the admittedly ingenious variations which Christie played upon it notwithstanding.
Unquestionably the Queen of Crime brought her own inimitable ingenuity and flair to Bristow and Manning’s original plot. Where The Invisible Host is a well-written, clever and exciting (if wildly improbable) mystery, And then There Were None is a work of sheer genius. Perhaps Bristow and Manning’s greatest contribution to the mystery field, during those few years when they dabbled in crime fiction, was creating the work which may well have inspired what is quite possibly the greatest mystery novel of all time. However, they continued over the next couple of years to try their hands at mystery fiction, in the event producing three more compelling tales of murder.
Critics of The Invisible Host have carped over the wickedly baroque novel’s artificial setting and general lack of realism, criticisms which to me seem entirely beside the point. The Golden Age of detective fiction for a time gloried in its very artificiality. However, the trio of Bristow and Manning crime novels which followed The Invisible Host are, if less outrageously inspired than Host, also more credible as well as quite enjoyable in their own right, demonstrating that the crime writing couple had not exhausted their murderous invention with a single book.
Although not published consecutively, The Gutenberg Murders (1931) and The Mardi Gras Murders (1932)–both of which novels, like The Invisible Host, are set in New Orleans—comprise a two book series and share a number of characters, both major and minor. The major series characters in the novel, all of whom are memorably presented, are Dan Farrell, district attorney of Orleans Parish (“not society but…nice people”), ace crime reporter Wade of the Morning Creole (decidedly homely but the possessor of a “sardonic grin that conveyed a perpetual assumption of the superiority behind the grin and the stupidity in front of it”), Captain Dennis Murphy of the New Orleans Homicide Squad (“broad, ruddy and Irish”) and the Creole’s star photographer Wiggins (a “very small, very brown young man with a screwed-up face, hopping like a firecracker”). These colorful characters, along with assorted police and press men (sadly no sob sisters ever put in appearances) link and enliven the two novels, providing as well an air of big city verisimilitude to a genre that was then still dominated by the country house setting, both in the United kingdom and the United States.
Although its milieu is more realistic than that of The Invisible Host, The Gutenberg Murders nevertheless offers readers an ingenious, highly classical puzzle, with D. A. Farrell, the police and the press all working together to discover the malefactor behind a rash of gruesome fiery slayings of individuals associated with the Sheldon Memorial Library, which had already been reeling from the scandalous theft of its recent prized acquisition of nine leaves from the Gutenberg Bible. (Farrell improbably deputizes Wade, although in real life Bristow herself would seem to have had rather a cozy relationship with the police in the Big Easy.)
For murderous inspiration Bristow and Manning unexpectedly drew on the ancient Greek playwright Euripides. (Indeed the novel might have been called The Euripides Murders.) Another source of inspiration very likely came to the authors from England’s recent “Blazing Car Murder,” a notorious killing which took place shortly after the passing of Guy Fawkes Night in the early morning of November 6, 1930. After a the body of a slain man was discovered in a burning automobile, another man, Alfred Rouse, was arrested and brought to trial for the crime on January 26, 1931 and speedily convicted and sentenced to death five days later. Upon the failure of his appeal, Rouse was executed on March 10. Bristow and Manning published The Gutenberg Murders four months later in July, likely after having been composed the novel during the winter of 1930-31, so assuredly would have been familiar with the case.
The second and final entry in what might be termed the Wade and Wiggins mystery series, The Mardi Gras Murders, was published in November 1932, about sixteen months after The Gutenberg Murders and eight months after the non-series Two and Two Make Twenty-Two. Farrell, Murphy, Wade and Wiggins all reappear, with Murphy’s and Wiggins’ roles enlarged from the first novel relative to Farrell’s and Wade’s. Indeed, Wiggins, whose first name we now learn is Tony, plays the leading role in solving the crime, as Wade had done in Gutenberg. The story concerns another series of weird murders in New Orleans, this one taking place over Collop Monday, Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday and plaguing members of the secretive and sinister Mardi Gras parade society Dis, dedicated to the Greek god of Inferno. Once again Bristow and Manning served up an intricately plotted mystery with fiendish whackings (including a “locked room” killing on a parade float) and plenteous local color, although it must be admitted that Mardi Gras Murders, completed after the publication of Dashiell Hammett’s hugely popular novels The Maltese Falcon and The Glass Key, has a more hard-boiled consistency to it than Gutenberg.
In particular Police Captain Murphy, with his repeated bellicose threats of inflicting the “third degree” upon persons of interest in the case and his bigoted treatment of Cynthia Fontenay’s black butler Jasper (an important witness in the case), likely will be viewed far less indulgently by modern readers than he is by Farrell, Wade and Wiggins. Yet should we really fault authors like Bristow and Manning for portraying things as they sadly were in those days? (And of course many would question just how much things have changed today.) As New Orleans crime reporters themselves, Bristow and Manning knew of what they wrote, unlike most crime writers of the day (Dashiell Hammett certainly excepted), although they often shared the cynicism of their profession, a quality which they portray in their depictions of Wade and Wiggins, who often get so caught up in the story they are covering that they forget about the finer human feelings. Bristow and Manning refer to “the newspaperman’s paradoxical quality of combining a genuine sympathy for people who got into trouble with a naïve eagerness to put their troubles in the paper,” which is perhaps a bit too indulgent a way of characterizing it.
Wade and Wiggins are similarly indulgent in their view of Murphy’s practice of “stowing away recalcitrant suspects” in the “dripping, rat-ridden, unlighted depths” of the Ninth Precinct station house under the authority of Ordinance 1436, on the assumption that a night or two spent there would loosen stiff tongues. “[E]ven the toughest of gangsters had been known to confess with teary appeals for mercy after two days in sparse fare among the rats,” write Bristow and Manning, without any obvious sense of disapproval. As the pair of former reporters would well have known, in real life Henry Moity had made his confession at the Ninth Precinct station house a few years earlier in 1927 and at his trial his legal team argued that he had confessed essentially, as George Healy out it, “to get away from the rats” in that “disintegrating, ill-kept, rodent-infested dungeon.”
Two and Two Make Twenty-Two, the crime novel which appeared between Gutenberg and Mardi Gras, is more of a throwback to the pleasing artificiality of The Invisible Host, at least in terms of its enclosed setting on an island off the Mississippi Gulf Coast, which is obviously drawn from the time which Bristow and Manning themselves spent in the area in 1930-31. As a powerful storm bears down on the high-toned pleasure resort of Paradise Island, the small number of hotel personal and guests remaining there has to cope not only with a squall but drug running and a most determined murderer. Regular police being absent from the scene, the case is solved by a sprightly and engaging elderly genteel lady sleuth, Daisy Dillingham, one of a series of well-drawn women characters who appear in the Bristow-Manning detective novels. At one point Daisy pronounces: “Men always see the obvious. You’ll run around putting two and two together and making your own chesty fours out of them. Sometimes two and two make-twenty-two.” And the novel’s jaw-dropping conclusion proves that she is right.
The Bristow and Manning novels are in fact filled with a striking number of independent women, rather like the author herself. Bristow’s biographer Billie Theriot (see Theriot’s 1994 Louisiana State University English dissertation) admits that “those who knew them agree [that Bristow and Manning] had an unusual living arrangement.” For most of their lives the couple slept in different rooms, spent much of their time far apart from each other and never had any children together, as Bristow single-mindedly achieved for herself a hugely successful writing career that eventually eclipsed her husband’s own work in film. (Bristow did not enjoy the company of children; Manning’s daughter from his first marriage spent one summer with Bruce and Gwen when she was thirteen, thinking she might live with them on a more permanent basis, but nothing came of this notion.) However, Theriot avows that according to all the friends and relations of Bristow and Manning whom she contacted, “there was never any indication of a troubled marriage.” One such friend assured Theriot that while the couple “had a very modern marriage in those days, even for today…they understood each other and got along very well. Bristow would never have had an affair.”
This leaves very much open the question of whether Manning ever had affairs, however. In The Secrets of Grown-Ups, the autobiography which Manning’s onetime Hollywood collaborator, celebrated crime novelist Vera Caspary, published fourteen years after Manning’s death in 1965 and a year before Gwen Bristow expired from lung cancer in 1980, Caspary suggests that Manning, like many another male in Hollywood, very well might have had the occasional extra-marital fling. Certainly Caspary left no room for doubt about her own intense feelings for Manning.
Vera Caspary had first met Manning (and Bristow) back in the early 1930s (probably 1932) in New Orleans, where she had gone to work, futilely as it turned out, on a novel. She secured charming quarters at Madame John’s Legacy, a historic French colonial cottage, and borrowed Bristow’s maid to do the housework; yet she found, nevertheless, that she was not getting anything done on her novel, preoccupied as she was with the seductive charms of Bruce Manning:
I was not too anxious at the time to remain in New Orleans. I was alarmed by the tremors and tempo of my heart when I heard heavy footsteps on the wide stairs that led to my balcony. I listened too eagerly for those footsteps. The man’s wife was my friend. She went out to work by day while he wrote radio scripts at home and was free to stroll over at noon and interrupt my efforts at concentration on the novel that had yet to find theme and form. He had the Irish love of a good story, the genius of the Irish for the telling of a tale. In time I learned that many of the stories were untrue, but heard them with no less enjoyment. He was a good listener too so that, stimulated, I told my stories with abandon and embroidery. We seduced each other with narrative and turned our skill to profit….I suggested collaboration [on the radio scripts she spent two days each week writing] as an excuse and guarantee for his delightful visits.
Yet Caspary confided that her “clamoring heart, imagination run amok, [and] uncontrolled dreams threatened to betray me,” and she decided to leave New Orleans before things went too far between her and Bruce. Caspary and her mother ended up for a time in Hollywood, yet she spent the summer of 1933 entertaining as her guests the visiting Bristow and Manning. “It was a delirious summer, a season of illusion and delusion, of gaiety, bewilderment, dreams and dedication to failure,” Caspary recalled. “I pined for a man who slept across a narrow corridor. With his wife….We liked playing games, stimulated each other to hysterical lightheartedness, bewitched each other with verbal tricks, [and] made adventures of every trifling incident.”
Later that year Caspary found to her guilty pleasure that she had Manning entirely to herself. After her mother was “established in an expensive New York apartment hotel” and Bristow had departed south to research yet another attempt at a novel, Caspary and Manning together “took rooms in a local inn [in Connecticut, where Gwen and Bruce were then living] to write originals and make our fortunes. We stayed a few weeks, wrote two originals, sold one [presumably “In Conference,” which became the 1934 crime melodrama Private Scandal] and saw the days growing short….I knew the end was inevitable: twilight came too early.”
“On a desolate October morning” Manning and Caspary left Connecticut in Caspary’s car, Manning bound for Louisiana and his wife and Caspary for Maryland and “the isolated farm of a friend who had invited me to stay with her while her husband, a ship’s captain, was off to sea.” All the way down from Connecticut it rained. The windshield wipers failed and it became pitch dark by the time they reached Maryland, forcing Bruce “to squint by flashlight at signposts bearing the names of villages not shown on our map.” In bed that night Caspary listened “to the beat of the rain” and “hoped the storm would keep up so that my love could not drive with the useless windshield wiper.” In the morning, however she opened her eyes “to feeble sunlight” and found Manning “dressed and ready to leave.” As per arrangement he took her car and drove away, out of Maryland and her life. Expressing the frequent feeling of the bed companion left behind in the cruelly cold early morning, Caspary added desolately:
I was left without love, without obligations, without fun and friends. Free. Free to go on with the novel.
The early chapters were never read, the notes discarded. The theme was too close to my sore heart.
With these words, which evidently went unread by Bristow’s biographer, Caspary wrote with more emotional intensity about Manning as a lover (real or fantasy) than it would appear the intensely private Bristow ever did. Yet by all accounts Bristow remained devoted to Manning throughout the thirty-six years of their marriage and after his death—she survived him by fifteen years—never entertained any notion of having any sort of intimate relationship with another man. In the end, however, Bristow, who spent her last years back in New Orleans, was buried with the rest of her family at the Garden of Memories in Metairie, Louisiana, with Manning left more than half a continent away at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Los Angeles, home of his own greatest successes. Bristow’s fame had eclipsed her husband’s by the time of his demise, with most of the films he scripted (aside from the beloved Deanna Durbin flicks) having been forgotten, but their early work together—the four vastly entertaining crime novels which they produced in those heady early years of their marriage—stands as a fine tribute to the brief creative collaboration of two remarkable people, a crime reporting couple who made good out of murder.