Several months ago, I returned to the detective fiction of an American husband-and-wife writing tandem, Gwen Bristow and Bruce Manning, who collaborated on four detective novels during the early 1930s of which The Invisible Host (1930) is the most famous – as some consider it to be an ancestor of Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None (1939). I read a Dutch translation of The Invisible Host in the 2000s and thought the book unworthy of being compared to the Queen of Crime's celebrated mystery novel. So, when Dean Street Press reissued their novels, I was astonished to see The Invisible Host garner glowing, multi-star reviews. The damn thing even defeated John Dickson Carr's Till Death Do Us Part (1944) to win the 2021 Reprint of the Year Award!I needed to understand what happened and how, but, before taking a second look at The Invisible Host, I wanted to read one or two of their other mysteries as they promised to be a somewhat more conventional. The Gutenberg Murders (1931) certainly is an improvement over The Invisible Host and intended to do The Mardi Grass Murders (1932) next, but after my previous read, The Seiren Island Murder Case, I wanted another one of those isolated, storm tossed island mysteries. Bristow and Manning happened to have penned such a mystery novels with comments and reviews promising an ending that can actually be compared to Christie.
Two and Two Make Twenty-Two (1932) is Bristow and Manning's fourth and final mystery novel. A standalone novel that takes place on "one of the many dots that speckle the Gulf off the Louisiana-Mississippi coastline," Paradise Island, which had been turned into "a glittering resort" by the current owner, Brett Allison – who had bought the island for next to nothing. Allison cleared the "matted tangle" of jungles and swamps to make way for "stables, wharfs, cottages, a golf course, tennis courts, shooting ranges, gaming rooms and the hotel," the Peacock Club. So he became "one of the most famous hosts in America," but authorities have good reason to believe cocaine, heroine and opium are being smuggled into the mainland US from Paradise Island.
The US Federal Government appointed "an untouchable committee" to trace the source of the drugs, but, three years of investigation, only revealed "the lesser men in the organization" and never the leaders or the mysterious woman – who acted as the middleman between the top and bottom men of the gang. Every time they got close to the source, the trail abruptly ended. Until a new trail lead them to Paradise Island ("an ideal landing-place for contraband drugs") and a young woman, Miss Eva Shale. She has a lot money to burn without any visible source of income and is very reticence to talk about herself or her past. Something that was bound to draw the attention of the authorities.
So three Federal investigators, Major Jack Raymond, Andrew Dillingham and Linton Barclay, travel to Paradise Island as a tropical storm is about to sweep the island. Nearly everyone has gone to mainland to weather out the storm and with the island virtually deserted, it's "a pretty good time to make a search and an arrest." But complication soon arise. Firstly, Andrew Dillingham has fallen for Eva Shale and now has some qualms about trapping "a young girl into admitting that she was the mysterious woman of the government reports." Secondly, Linton Barclay is stabbed to death at his cottage around the time the storm arrives. A storm cutting a dozen people off from the mainland who now have to secure the crime scene and try to find the murderer.
When you read the first half dozen chapters, until the murder is discovered, you get the idea Two and Two Make Twenty-Two is only posing as a traditional mystery, but in actuality a crime novel with a remarkable contemporary feeling to it. Those six chapters recalled Basil Thomson's The Milliner's Hat Mystery (1937) as these drug running plot-threads usually hover discreetly in the background of 1930s detective novels. But when the murder is discovered, the story goes a decade back in time as it shifted from drug running to a 1920s style drawing room mystery with an island setting and crime scene resembling a busy thoroughfare. One of the characters even remarks, "that cottage would make a swell place for a cigar store" since "everybody goes by there." A remarkable feat considering Paradise Island was practically deserted at the time.
There were two prospective buyers of the island, "a fellow named Foster" and Tracy Cupping. Cupping has brought along his much younger wife, Imogen Cupping, who really tests her husband's "gentleman's dislike of messy publicity." Judith Garon is a guest who has stayed behind on the island, because she has been quite "resentful of Barclay's attentions to Eva." A number of employees of the Peacock Club like the club manager, chauffeur, telephone and radio operators, but the best character of all is a late arrival on the island, Mrs. Daisy Dillingham, who's Andrew's influential grandmother and does, and says, what she wants – like landing in a private plane on the golf course of the club. Mrs. Dillingham could have been developed into an interesting series-detective going by how she solved the murder and dealt with the murderer.
So there you have enough characters to pad out a good, old-fashioned whodunit and that brings us to the story's biggest strength and major weakness. The middle portion of Two and Two Make Twenty-Two is a paint-by-numbers, 1920s style, detective story with the characters tramping around the crime scene and have to be pried open to get their explanation. Everyone's movement is tracked to establish or breakdown alibis and two shady characters turn up to add a hint of the pulp thriller to what's already going on. And had it not been for the ending, Two and Two Make Twenty-Two would have nothing to make it standout. Not even with the prominent drug plot-thread and the wonderful character of Daisy Dillingham. But what an ending! What a twist!
When you're wading waist-deep in detective fiction, you get those jolts of genuine surprise less often and eventually become a bit rare. Two and Two Make Twenty-Two can join Joan Sanger's The Case of the Missing Corpse (1936) and Anne van Doorn's De man die zijn geweten ontlastte (The Man Who Relieved His Conscience, 2019) as detective novels that gave this fan, who has seen it all, the kind of jolt I remember from my first reading of Christie's Murder on the Orient Express (1934). If Bristow and Manning had dealt the reader a slightly fairer hand of clues and red herrings, I would have unhesitatingly placed the book among the top-tier Golden Age mysteries as better clueing and misdirection would have improved the middle portion considerably. Now it falls just short of the mark, but a wonderfully done, vintage mystery novel saving the best for last.
I'm going to return to Bristow and Manning before the end of the year, but I'm going to save The Mardi Grass Murders for last and reread The Invisible Host next. I really, really need to understand how it could have beaten Carr's Till Death Do Us Part. My negative opinion better be due to a shoddy translation or else I'm going to angrily shake a gibbet cage again.