Senior Adjunct Research Fellow, La Trobe University, Melbourne Australia
In 1930, a clever whodunnit called The Invisible Host was published. The husband-and-wife team of Bruce Manning and Gwen Bristow wrote the book. The couple had worked as court reporters and had even met while covering a murder trial. The novel enjoyed some popularity, and it was adapted to be a 1930 Broadway play, The Ninth Guest, by the prolific playwright Owen Davis, who also staged it. In a long career, Davis wrote or adapted more than 200 plays, and this one ran for 72 performances at the Eltinge 42nd Street Theatre. Building on this modest achievement, a film version was released in 1934, also called The Ninth Guest. The film was only a second feature of little note from Columbia Pictures. Yet despite its minor profile, its impact can certainly still be felt in the movies and detective stories right up to the present day. The book, play, and movie disappeared without a trace, but it would open the door for other works.
Some critics have noted the book’s similarities with Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, which was published in 1939 – almost a decade later. In both novels, a disparate group of guests arrive at a place where they are informed all will die – and one by one, they do. To begin proceedings, an anonymous murderer announces over a speaker to the assembled guests that they will be killed for various crimes. Each guest has some secret that has marked them for murder. The ninth guest in the Manning and Bristow novel is death.
The two stories indeed contain similar plotlines and devices which were employed in the film versions. In The Ninth Guest, a voice comes from the radio, announcing that the guests will die unless they outwit him. In the 1945 version of And Then There Were None, a record is placed on the phonograph, where a recording from a Mr. Owen announces their crimes and fate. This similar starting point is followed by a rapid build-up of bodies.
It is no disrespect to say that Christie produced a far better work. Her plots are amazingly intricate and remotely plausible, while The Ninth Guest lurches into the just plain silly. And Then There Were None was eventually ranked 19th in the top crime novels of all time by the Mystery Writers of America. Even with the gap in quality, what is clear is that Manning and Bristow created one of the most influential ideas in entertainment history. Christie may well have developed it independently, but it is clear that Manning and Bristow got there first. Of course, the husband and wife did not invent the idea all on their own. The plot has its origins with the locked room murders of the nineteenth century whose distant ancestor was Edgar Allen Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue in 1844.
It remains a matter of conjecture if Christie had read the book or seen the film before writing the novel. She certainly read and was inspired by another early locked-room mystery in Gaston Leroux’s The Mystery of the Yellow Room, published in 1907. She had her fictional Belgian detective Hercule Poirot even praise the book; “And here is The Mystery of the Yellow Room. That – ah, that is really a classic! I approve of it from start to finish. Such a logical approach! There were criticisms of it, I remember, which said it was unfair. But it is not unfair, my dear Colin. No, no. Very nearly so, perhaps, but no, not quite. There is the hair’s breadth of difference. No. All through there is truth, concealed with the careful and cunning use of words. Everything should be clear at that supreme moment when the men meet at the angle of the three corridors.”
Christie had experimented with the basic idea of a murder in a closed space with limited suspects in several of her novels. Her 1934 novel, Murder on the Orient Express, places the murder on a train. In Death in the Air, published in 1935, a man is killed on an airplane flying between France and England. In the 1937 novel Death on the Nile, a woman is shot while sailing down the Egyptian river on a cruise boat. The critical elements of the novels are a range of characters, each with their secrets and motives, and physical boundaries prohibiting escape. No one can enter this shut-off world, so it is a closed box. This basic setting for a murder mystery remains a popular idea. One of the most recent examples has been the BBC crime series Vigil, where a murder takes place in a nuclear submarine – a mile beneath the sea. The detective is lowered into the submarine from a helicopter to solve the crime. Despite its high-tech premise, with its threat of nuclear meltdown and superpower conflict, the setting has all the essential elements: an enclosed space; and a limited number of suspects of whom one is the murderer.
Christie took the plot to the next level by having every character killed. How can there be a murderer if everyone is dead? The story defies any sense of logic to make a solution appear impossible. Then having created an impossible problem, Christie then disentangles it. While extremely popular, none of the previous novels ever succeeded as well as And Then There Were None. Whatever its origins or influences, the novel remains one of the most successful whodunnits of all time, as it has sold an estimated 100 million copies. And Then There Were None is also Christie’s most adapted novel with at least ten films.
The novel’s impact has been enormous, and it constantly reappears in a vast range of works in various forms. Other writers immediately incorporated some elements into many other movies, such as Murder by Invitation (1941), directed by Phil Rosen, where relatives are invited to a house to gain an inheritance, and the murders begin. Some other films have reworked the premise in highly original ways. The Usual Suspects (1995) took the idea of a group being put together and murdered one by one and gave it a twist. In this film, an unknown figure calls together a group of criminals to commit one robbery or face death. Like the preceding films, The Usual Suspects presents a disembodied voice over a speaker that threatens the group with retribution. The criminals are given no choice; they will either be killed, or someone close to them will be murdered. When the killer is revealed, the solution would do credit to Christie herself.
The original novel was also notable for Christie stepping away from her detective Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple using their logic and intuition to solve the crime. The killer gets away with it. When the BBC reworked the book as a miniseries in 2015, writer Sarah Phelps was shocked by its brutality. Phelps noted that it resonated with the time: “You can see it as a game; it’s a very, very clever plot. It’s a plot that you can tell someone delights in having pulled off, this extraordinary piece of sleight of hand conjuring. Still, within that, when you read it as a novel – rather than read it as an escalating series of tricks – it’s rather extraordinary. I was really surprised and interested by the fact it was published in 1939, just as war was gathering in Europe. It seems to be one of those books really about the time it is set in; it tells you more about the world than it would do if it attempted to address the complexities of the world.”
In the mid-1940s, such an approach was unacceptable to the Production Code in the United States. Rene Clair’s 1945 film and other versions were often based on the play, which had a more optimistic ending with a couple escaping the murderer – even Christie could not write a play where everyone dies. A stage with no characters is a difficult challenge for any playwright. Moreover, audiences in late 1945 had lived through a protracted conflict and welcomed some light-hearted entertainment. It was a murder puzzle where no one really got hurt. Seventy years later, when Phelps returned to rework the original book, she included its darker ending. It may be well a reflection on our times that we favour a bleaker interpretation.
 Theriot, Billie. Gwen Bristow: A Biography: With Criticism of Her Plantation Trilogy. Canada: Picasso Publications, Incorporated, 1998.
 Owen Davis, The Ninth Guest: A Mystery Melodrama in Three Acts. United Kingdom: French, 1932. Box office details at https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-production/the-ninth-guest-11139.
 Alison Flood, “And then there were two: novel thought to have inspired Agatha Christie gets UK publication,” The Guardian, 17 September 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2021/sep/16/the-invisible-host-inspired-agatha-christie-gets-uk-publication. The original UK title for And Then There Was None was Ten Little Niggers a clear racial slur, and it was printed as Ten Little Indians in the United States.