Reviewed by DAVID L. VINEYARD:         

GWEN BRISTOW & BRUCE MANNING – The Invisible Host.   Mystery League, hardcover, 1930. Play: The Ninth Guest, by Owen Davis (on Broadway Aug-Oct 1930). Film: Columbia, 1934, as The Ninth Guest (with Genevieve Tobin & Donald Cook; director: Roy William Neill). Paperback reprint: Popular Library, 1975, as The Ninth Guest.

    “Death, the great housewife, sweeps one’s puzzled moldiness into the dustbin.”

   A small group of people are gathered together in a lonely location by a host none of them knows. Soon they start to die one by one, and come to the horrifying revelation that one of their number is both their host and the killer. A successful book that became a successful play and was the basis of a film and written by a best-selling female writer…

   But it’s not Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians (And Then There Were None). In fact it was published nine years earlier, the first novel by Gwen Bristow (Jubilee Trail, Calico Palace) and screenwriter husband Bruce Manning (Meet Nero Wolfe, The Lone Wolf Returns, One Hundred Men and a Girl, Rage of Paris, Jubilee Trail — see above — and many more).

   The Invisible Host opens as the ‘guests’ receive a telegram from a mysterious ‘host’ —

                    YOUR HOST

BRISTOW MANNING The Invisible Host

   True he’s no U. N. Owen, but he makes his point, and his guests arrive at Bienville Penthouse for their assignation with fate:

    Margaret Chisholm, who dislikes her position as grand dame of New Orleans society being challenged; Dr. Murray Chambers Reid, the president of a local university who has just pulled off a coup by forcing a left-leaning colleague out; Jason Osgood, wealthy founder of the Osgood Foundation; Peter Daly, a playwright celebrating his first play on Broadway; Sylvia Inglesby, a glamorous and beautiful lawyer; Tim Salmon, a pugnacious tough politician; Henry Abbot, that left leaning professor; and Jean Trent, the diaphanous movie star back home in New Orleans for the holidays.

   So they gather at Bienville Penthouse in the recently completed Beinville Building where their host informs them anonymously:

    “Tonight you shall learn to laugh with death, the bogeyman of the ages … for … Death ought to be the playful unicorn teasing the edges of life.”

   And soon enough the ‘playful unicorn’ is teasing the edges of murder as the guests begin to die one by one.

    “If we are not alone — if the person who calls himself our host is here — we ought to be able to find him. If he is really speaking from a distant station this apartment is full of horrible death traps, designed to catch us as the night goes on.”

   So the game is on and the ‘guests’ begin to die one by one as their host strikes again and again…

   Tensions rise between the suspects:

    “I think you are a disgusting little snob overwhelmed by your own importance, but I wouldn’t murder you.”

   Mrs. Chisholm dies in the best manner — of chagrin, a neat trick for any killer. Tim Slamon falls to a deadly (and the most unlikely I’ve ever encountered in long years of reading these) trap based on a personal habit. Sylvia Inglesby loses control and commits virtual suicide throwing herself at an electrified door. Jason Osgood, the ruthless millionaire falls victim to his own ruthlessness. Dr. Reid dies of trying to psychoanalyze the killer who is just one step too clever for him.

   And then there were three.

    “… I have kept the promise I made when I said that each of you would provide me with his own means of murder.”

   And of course the killer is mad as a hatter:

    “… but for you I should not be _____ ____, motley clown of the Quarter.”

   No, it’s not the Joker, though his methods and psychology aren’t far off. The Joker’s motivations make more sense than this killer’s.

   The Invisible Host is by no means a good book, Bill Pronzini wisely chose it as an alternative classic, but it is fun in the way only a true alternative classic can be, and a good illustration of how heavy-handed a good idea can be handled by less deft hands than a master like Agatha Christie. On its own terms it is a good deal of fun.

   I have to admit I enjoyed it, but then I’m somewhat inured to bad books. You may have to find your own standard of tolerance for this sort of thing.

   Bristow and Manning wrote two more mystery novels, The Gutenberg Murders (1931) and The Mardi Gras Murders (1932). I have no idea if they are anywhere near as divinely alternative as this one. Gwen Bristow went on to write two popular historical novels, The Jubilee Trail and Calico Palace, the former adapted into a glossy color film from Republic with Vera Ralston, Joan Leslie, Forest Tucker, and Pat O’Brien (and screenplay by hubby Bruce Manning).

   The Invisible Host was not the basis for the 1939 film The Man They Could Not Hang, though it uses the same basic set up of the ‘host’ gathering his victims in his house and eliminating them one by one.

   Beware, some sources confuse this with the earlier Karloff film The Walking Dead, which does use the idea of the victims each dying more or less of his own flaws and foibles, but nothing else similar to the film. The idea of the victims gathered at a lonely location goes back at least to The Cat and the Canary, so neither the book nor the film is wholly new territory.

   The book was reprinted in a later paperback edition as The Ninth Guest. The Mystery League edition has an added bonus of sample chapters from books by Edgar Wallace, George Goodchild, Miles Burton, and alternative king Sydney Horler.

   And as our hero and heroine escape the deadly trap and the killer bites into the cap of a pen filled with prussic acid…

    A fan of golden clouds was unfolding above the roofs, and beyond it the sky was turning a clear peacock green… Over the threshold they saw the hall and the stairs leading down to the elevator. It seemed strange that nothing had changed since they came down them.

   Leaving Death, that playful unicorn housewife, to tidy up after himself I suppose. Serves him right too, that motley clown of the Quarter.

Editorial Comment:   If anyone is interested, the New York Times reviewed the movie version of the book, and you can find it online here.