BOOK CLUB BLUES: Bristow/Manning Sequel Drags the Marsh

Three months after the fact, the world is still reeling from my extraordinary upset win in the 2021 Reprint-of-the-Year Awards, when Gwen Bristow and Bruce Manning’s 1930 debut novel, The Invisible Host, beat out J.D. Carr’s Till Death Do Us Part for the grand prize, (a deluxe lounge suite from Broyhill). The folks over at Dean Street Press must have been pleased because they had already decided to reprint the three other mysteries that the husband-and-wife team co-wrote before they went on to other lucrative (and separate) writing projects. 

I’ll bet DSP was also chuffed to receive seven orders of the second book in the series, The Gutenberg Murders, after my Book Club decided to tackle the sequel for our March title. Actually, “sequel” is a misnomer here. If you read The Invisible Host, you know that too few characters survived that night of horror to provide additional story. No, Gutenbergmay also take place in The Big Easy and contain a series of brutal murders, but it deals with a whole new set of characters, a detecting team, in fact: Dan Farrell represents the District Attorney’s office, Captain Dennis Murphy the police, and crime reporter Wade and photographer Wiggins the fourth estate. 

Friend of this blog Curtis Evans has composed introductions to all four Bristow/Manning novels, and you learn a wealth of information here, including the fact that husband and wife worked for New Orleans papers and covered some of the more gruesomely famous murder cases that had occurred in that colorful city. Thus, it makes sense that Wade the journalist is our main detective in this one, while Wiggins, who provides comic relief, will take the lead sleuthing role in the couple’s third mystery, The Mardi Gras Murders (1932). The snappy repartee between these two characters is the best thing about this novel, followed by Bristow and Manning painting a great picture of a bustling metropolitan newspaper that they knew so well:

It was approaching the rush-hour, when copy boys dash in and out, laden with smudgy sheets that will be the morning news, and reporters hunch furiously over their typewriters and write tensely, looking up at the clock and jerking half-finished stories out to be put into type, knowing that after the first pages of copy are gone all the bright remarks that should have been in the opening paragraph will rush to the surface stillborn. The great room rattled and quivered and seethed; it looked like the last epitome of confusion, as if every man there was enduring such a peak of strain as would leave him shaken for weeks to come, but it happened every evening and they were used to it, and they knew that all the noise and the tight nerves would be smoothed down to cool type for breakfast.”

It also helps that the sleuthing team is composed of characters who, if not exactly original, have a certain amount of wit, especially young Wiggins, who could be played by any number of classic Hollywood character actors and has a way with a comment: “There’s six people in this case I don’t like, and Dancy’s at least four of ‘em.”

It’s all about this book . . .

As for the case itself . . . well, after the phantasmagorical goings-on of The Invisible Host, with its interesting parallels to Christie’s magnum opus And Then There Were None nine years later, I was prepared for the events of The Gutenberg Murders to seem more ordinary. And the back cover blurb sure makes things sound exciting. The case centers around that prestigious, if imaginary, center of learning, The Sheldon Library, which is run by Dr. Prentice, an elderly scholar who has recently purchased nine consecutive leaves, including the pages containing the Ten Commandments, of the original Gutenberg Bible. The authenticity of the leaves has been challenged by Alfredo Gonzales, the Library’s trustee, who has demanded that he be allowed to examine them. Now they have been stolen, and Dr. Prentice informs the District Attorney that he suspects his assistant, Quentin Ulman, of having absconded with the priceless pages. 

Before Farrell can investigate any further, Ulman is murdered in a particularly horrible way, and for some unfathomable reason, Farrell deputizes Wade, a good personal friend, to act as adjunct investigator in the case. The reporter is already aware of loads of gossip surrounding the library (because aren’t we all salivating for good library gossip??), and he begins to pick apart professional rivalries and personal jealousies in order to determine who killed Ulman and why, who stole the Gutenberg Bible leaves, and whether the thief made away with a literary and religious treasure or a worthless fake.

Heck, I just read this over, and even made the book sound pretty exciting. 

Well, it’s not. 

You’ve heard me speak here before about the concept of “dragging the Marsh.” I put that phrase together in honor of Dame Ngaio Marsh, an excellent writer if not a brilliant plotter, whose mysteries had the unfortunate formulaic similarity of stopping dead in their tracks during a long series of suspect interviews. 

Until the final thirty pages or so of The Gutenberg Murders, interviews are all we get. Chapter One is pure exposition as Farrell pumps Wade for information about the folks who work at the library. The first murder happens offstage, and then the team gets to work with interview after interview after interview after . . . it never ends. And worse, nobody reveals very much at all, since they’re all lying or saying things like, “I do think I have a line on something, but before I tell you, I need to be alone for a couple of days so that the killer can strike me down next.” It’s not like this doesn’t happen all the time in classic mysteries; it’s the basis of every third murder in Christie (the second murder being of the blackmailer.) Sometimes it’s effective, but often it only serves to stretch things out to novel length. Here, matters feel stretched to the breaking point.

And the “suspect with information who wants to think things over first before revealing what they know but dying before they can spill” situation happens more than once, always offstage, and always resulting in more dragging the Marsh. (And this is the American South, home to much quicksand, so the marsh dragging is especially sluggish here.) Plus, I guessed the killer around page four (it sort of depends on where you stand regarding that bible), and I really did feel like I was waiting around for everyone else to catch up. The final act does reveal a clever murder method – which might have been more effective if we had been let in on the possibility that there was a clever murder method to be found. 

So, look, I liked Wade and Wiggins, but I’m not sure I would grab The Mardi Gras Murders, even if only to spend more time in their snappy company. I do have a copy of the authors’ final mystery, Two and Two Makes Twenty-Two, which Curtis assures us is a bit more Invisible Host-style crazy – something about a group of people trapped on an island during a storm. (Honestly, Mrs. Christie, what were you reading in the early 30’s???) One of these days, I might get around to that one.

Meanwhile, I have a feeling that Sunday’s Book Club will be a somber affair . . . 

4 thoughts on “BOOK CLUB BLUES: Bristow/Manning Sequel Drags the Marsh

  1. Pingback: The Gutenberg Murders (1931) by Gwen Bristow & Bruce Manning – In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel

  2. Pingback: DEATH AND DELIGHT ON THE HIGH C’S: Edmund Crispin’s Swan Song | Ah Sweet Mystery!

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