The murder mysteries of Gwen Bristow and Bruce Manning

January 18, 2022 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: journalism, Women writers and journalists, writers, writing.

How’s this for a plot? A number of people (eight or ten) with dark secrets are lured to a place where they can’t escape (a locked room or a deserted island). They are greeted by a host they cannot see and told that in a short time, they will all be dead. Then, they start dying, one by one. The book ends with the host revealed and the participants dead.

Wait! That’s obviously And Then There Were None (sometimes titled Ten Little Indians) by Agatha Christie. It was originally published in 1939 under what is now considered a totally inappropriate title (look it up, if you must). The book is Christie’s all-time best seller and considered to be the world’s best-selling mystery, with more than 100 million copies going across the sales counter. It has been adapted for film and television more than any other of Christie’s books.

Very interesting, but this is about plot—specifically the plot described in the first paragraph.

Nearly a decade before Christie published her book, a book in America titled The Invisible Host came out. It was a mystery by a husband and wife writing team, Gwen Bristow and Bruce Manning. The book sold well, and it was made into a play, titled The Ninth Guest, that had a brief run on Broadway. Later, RKO Pictures bought the film rights to The Invisible Host, and Bristow and Manning moved to Hollywood to write the script. The movie came out in 1934.

The book was about eight people who had dark secrets and were invited to the top floor of a New Orleans skyscraper where they were locked in. The guests all know each other, and after a superb dinner, they are informed by a voice over the radio that they will be dead before the night is done.

Sound familiar?

So, the question immediately arises: Did Agatha Christie steal that plot and make it her own?

The debate on that continues, but there is no evidence that Christie ever read the book or saw the movie. While snatches of her other books contain bits similar to previous works, no one ever brought a serious charge of plagiarism against her. In fact, all of the evidence points in the opposite direction. Christie had an extremely fertile mind and didn’t need to steal plots. She invented plenty on her own.

So, who were Gwen Bristow and Bruce Manning, and how did they come to write this book?

They were reporters for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Gwen coming from South Carolina by way of Judson College in Alabama and the Columbia School of Journalism and Bruce from New York. The newspaper assigned them to cover courts and trials in New Orleans. The couple married in 1929 and lived in a small but affordable apartment in the French Quarter. Gwen had aspirations beyond the newspaper and already published a book of poetry.

Their living quarters proved to be a problem. Their next door neighbor played his radio loudly at all hours, and no entreaties could persuade him to turn it down. Dealing with that inspired them to write a mystery novel that used a blaring radio as a way of telling guests they were about to die. Thus, The Invisible Host was born. The novel was a success, and when it was made into a Broadway play, Gwen quit her job and took to writing full time. The two published two more mysteries, The Gutenberg Murders and The Mardi Gras Murders.

All of these books were full of intricate plots and colorful local characters.

When RKO Pictures bought the rights to their first book, the couple moved to Hollywood to write the script. Bruce wrote and published a novel on his own, but Gwen had little success in getting her work in print. Bruce got into script writing, but Gwen persisted and finally was able to publish several “plantation novels” in the same vein as Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind. Her novels Deep Summer (1937), The Handsome Road (1938), and This Side of Glory (1940) brought her some success and fame.

Meanwhile, Bruce turned to film producing and directing as well as script writing, and the couple earned enough by 1950 to move to the San Fernando Valley.

Both of these talented writers were plagued with ill-health, brought on or exacerbated by too much alcohol and tobacco. Manning died in 1965 and was buried in California. Bristow lived until 1980, and when she died, she was buried with her family in New Orleans.

Get a FREE copy of Kill the Quarterback

Get a free digital copy of Jim Stovall's mystery novel, Kill the Quarterback. You will also get Jim's newsletter and advanced notice of publications, free downloads and a variety of information about what he is working on. Jim likes to stay in touch, so sign up today.

Powered by ConvertKit

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.