'Tis the season to be jolly, and all that, and what could be as jolly as a nice murder? Fictionally speaking, of course. There are a great many fine mysteries set around the holiday period. One of my own favorites is Ngaio Marsh's 1972 mystery entitled Tied Up in Tinsel, one of the mysteries I reviewed during the first year of the Classic Mysteries podcast. Here, slightly edited, is what I had to say about the book:
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In a way, I suppose, you could call this the perfect Christmas gift for a mystery lover: the murder of a faithful retainer…a group of suspects that includes several convicted and confessed murderers…one of the strangest setups ever confronted in a grand, if not-so-old, English manor house…and a Scotland Yard detective whose wife is one of the principal witnesses. Merry Christmas from Ngaio Marsh and Tied Up in Tinsel.
In Tied Up in Tinsel, we have a fine example of the holiday mystery. In fact, I’d have to call it one of my favorite Marsh novels. It takes place in an English manor house at Christmas. It features the detective work of Superintendent Roderick Alleyn of the C. I. D. Even more to my liking, it features Alleyn’s marvelous wife, Agatha Troy, as a principal character. And it contains one of the oddest stories and group of possible suspects that I can remember from any mystery.
Here is the situation: Troy, who is a distinguished painter, has been commissioned to do a portrait of Mr. Hilary Bill-Tasman, a non-titled gentleman, an authority on antiques, and the host of a Christmas party under way at his manor, named Halberds. Troy discovers a most peculiar setup at Halberds: Hilary, for a variety of reasons, has hired as his household staff several convicted murderers. They are all “oncers” – that is, they each killed one person, served their sentences, and have been released, considered unlikely to kill again. But when murder does take place – as it does – the unavoidable question becomes, has one of the murderous servants reverted and killed again?
The victim is another servant, who works for one of the other guests – and he disappears after having played the role of a Druid in an elaborate Christmas pageant staged by Hilary Bill-Tasman for the children of the local gentry. And, to be sure, the other guests at the holiday party, all of them related to or friends of Hilary, are also potential suspects and killers.
Troy finds herself, quite obviously, caught up in these strange goings-on. Her husband, having just returned from Australia, is invited to Halberds, at first as a guest. But, when it becomes obvious that the missing servant seems to have been the victim of foul play, he finds himself pressed into service by his superiors – much to his distaste, for as Alleyn observes, he doesn’t like to see his wife within a hundred miles of a murder case.
This novel gives Ngaio Marsh a chance to indulge in a number of her specialties. The planning and execution of the Christmas pageant, for example, is stunning – which is not, perhaps, surprising, given Marsh’s vocation as a professional theatrical producer and director. The pageant itself – and the appearance of the Druid, who will later disappear and wind up the victim of violence – is the central incident in the novel, and it is wonderfully done. Here is just a little bit of her description of the pageant – which is performed before a roomful of neighbors and their children:
Hilary, standing before the children, raised his hands for quiet and got it. From outside in the night came sounds that might have been made by insubstantial flutes piping in the north wind. Electronic music, Troy thought, and really almost too effective: it raised goose-pimples, it turned one a little cold. But through this music came the jingle of approaching sleigh bells. Closer and closer to an insistent rhythm until they were outside the French windows. Nothing could be seen beyond the tree, but Hilary in his cunning had created an arrival. Now came the stamp of hooves, the snorts, the splendid cries of “Whoa.” Troy didn’t so much as think of Blore.
The windows were opened.
The tree danced in the cold air, everything stirred and glittered. The candle flames wavered, the baubles tinkled.
The windows were shut.And round the tree, tugging his golden car on its runners, came the Druid.
Well, Troy thought, it may be a shameless concoction of anachronisms and Hilary’s cockeyed sense of fantasy, but it works.
That passage gives you a taste of a theatrical spectacle, designed – and written – by a person who knew her way around the theater.
Tied Up in Tinsel also gives Marsh a chance to show off her knowledge of the visual arts. Over the course of several novels in which she appears, Agatha Troy Alleyn emerges as a marvelous painter and knowledgeable critic, with the kind of quirks that you might expect to find in a first-rate artist’s personality. There is a very good passage in the novel, before the pageant itself, but after a number of very curious and ultimately significant events, where Troy muses on her surroundings and work this way:
It was at this point that Troy began to feel really disturbed. She began to see herself, as if she was another person, alone among strangers in an isolated and falsely luxurious house and attended by murderers. That, she thought, like it or lump it, is the situation. And she wished with all her heart that she was out of it and spending her Christmas alone in London or with any one of the unexceptionable friends who had so warmly invited her.
The portrait was almost finished. Perhaps quite finished. She was not sure it hadn’t reached the state when somebody with wisdom should forcibly remove her from it and put it out of her reach. Her husband had been known to perform this service, but he was twelve thousand miles away…
The passage goes on. And, of course, Troy’s premonitions prove to have been correct. And, fortunately for her, her husband was NOT, in fact, twelve thousand miles away, but returning to London and, as we will discover, available to be forced into investigating the mystery that enfolds these characters.
It is quite typical of Marsh’s novels to find that each character in a book with a great many individual characters nevertheless stands out as a fully rounded personality. Whether it is Hilary’s eccentric uncle and aunt, his rather unpleasant fiancée, his Cockney business partner, or any of the ex-murderers – if there is, indeed, such a thing as an “ex-murderer” – Marsh rounds out their personalities and makes us see them as individuals, not as stock characters. The Christmas setting, which is integral to the action and plot, is an added bonus at this time of year.
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Let me just add my own greeting to all of you, my visitors here at Classic Mysteries. Whatever holidays you may enjoy, may they be pleasant and meaningful ones.
If you'd like to listen to the original podcast review, please click here.
Next week, another seasonal (or is it?) book worth re-reading: Christmas at Candleshoe, by Michael Innes.