The Gutenberg Murders

A review of The Gutenberg Murders by Gwen Bristow and Bruce Manning

Published originally in 1931, this is the second murder mystery that Bristow and Manning wrote and Dean Street Press, who kindly sent me a review copy, should be congratulated for rescuing it from obscurity. It struck me as a much more mature and confident piece of work, better written and with more rounded characterisation than is to be found in The Invisible Host.

It also has a great, if somewhat gruesome, method of dispatching the victim. This duo is not content with a common or garden shooting or stabbing or poisoning. Instead, they plumb the pages of Greek mythology and provide us with a modern take of the fate of Creusa of Corinth at the hands of Medea in Euripides’ tragedy. As someone who as both a schoolboy and student had grappled with the play in its original, I spotted the reference and had a feeling of smug satisfaction as the solution was revealed. When next I am asked what value there is in having a knowledge of the Classics, I can now say that it helped me solve the Gutenberg Murders.      

A mode of murder drawn from the depths of Greek mythology is appropriate for a story that is set in the world of academics who run the Sheldon Library in New Orleans and have a penchant for collecting and restoring antiquarian books. Pride of place in the collection, at least in the mind of the head librarian, Dr Prentiss, are the nine leaves from the Gutenberg bible that he has recently acquired. However, not everyone is convinced of their provenance, notably his arch-rival and head trustee of the library, Alfredo Gonzales.  

The story starts with the discovery that the pages from the bible have been stolen and that the body of the deputy librarian, Quentin Ulman, has been found charred almost beyond recognition, save for a cigarette case, on an island where he bound books. Later, Gonzales’ wife suffers a similar fate as she drives home from a party. Sculptor, Terry Sheldon, nephew of the library’s founder, also is burned to death. Who is behind the murders, why and how were they carried out?

District Attorney Farrell takes the unusual step of involving a journalist, Wade, in the investigations which hit a brick wall as the principal suspects either have cast-iron alibis or are murdered themselves. The investigations reveal a complex web of relationships between the principal characters, Wade himself allowing the charms of medical student, Marie Camillo, to cloud his judgment, and a will coupled with an untimely marriage which provides a clue to the deep seated rivalry between Prentiss and Gonzales.

Wade is on the verge of giving up in despair when he picks up a copy of the plays of Euripides for one more time and an obscure French investigation into how mythological and historical murders could have been pulled off. The scales fall from his eyes, and he sets a trap for the suspects, which they fall for, even though Wade almost suffers the same fate as the other victims. The mystery is resolved in a glowing finale, although the culprit evades the hangman’s noose by taking his own life, sadly in a rather conventional fashion.

The characters are believable, and the dialogue is crisp and realistic. Bristow and Manning, write with humour and there is a pace to the book which keeps the reader interested, even when the investigations appear to be going nowhere. I thoroughly enjoyed the book. One of life’s many mysteries is why it has fallen out of favour for so long.

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