Three Grand Dames of Mystery: “Tied Up in Tinsel”

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In Ngaio Marsh’s 1972 novel Tied Up in Tinsel, Hilary Bill-Tasman has purchased Halberds, his family estate, forcedby his grandfather to be sold. Because staffing such a manor costs a lot of money, Hilary has found a solution to this problem: He has hired five murderers released from prison. After all, they aren’t really a risk. Cook killed a man for abusing a cat. Marvin killed a cat burglar with a booby trap that went wrong. Blah lashed out at his wife’s lover; it wasn’t his fault that he happened to be cooking with a knife right then. Nigel, incited by religious fervor, killed a “sinful lady.” And Vincent, a gardener, poisoned his nasty boss with arsenical spray, but the jury in ther appeal agreed that he didn’t realize the woman was in the greenhouse. Now they serve as servants to Hilary.

Agatha Troy Alleyn, the greatest painter England has ever seen, is spending Christmas at Hilary’s home to paint him, since her husband, Detective Superintendent Roderick Alleyn, is pursuing a case in Australia. Hilary is expecting five more guests for Christmas. There are the eccentric Colonel and Mrs. Forester, otherwise known as his “Uncle Flea” and “Auntie Bed.” They will bring their longtime manservant Alf Moult, who strongly hates the presence of the murderers. Fourth, Mr. Smith, Hilary’s partner whom he inherited from his father in their antiques business, is coming. And finally is Hilary’s fiance, Cressida Tottenham, a shallow, glamorous so-called actress whose job is to express art by taking off her clothes. Soon after all arrive, the visitors become victims of mean practical jokes, each one in the mode of a different murderer servant’s crime.

Hilary traditionally holds a special celebration on Christmas Eve in which the Christmas Druid instead of Santa Claus elivers presents to all the families in his community, many of which work at the prison nearby. Uncle Flea takes his position as the Druid very seriously, but when Troy finishes cheering him on, Cressida tells Troy that Uncle Flea experienced heart trouble as he was dressing in the Druid’s robe, so Moult substituted for Uncle Flea. But then Moult just disappears. . . .

Thus Roderick Alleyn enters the scene.

Tied Up in Tinsel earned Marsh an Edgar Award nomination for Best Mystery Novel in 1973. I find it curious that this book, out of Marsh’s ouvre, was selected for this honor, given that she had so many stronger books. Her other nomination came in 1967 for Death at the Dolphin. In addition to these two nominations, both of which lost to less well-known books, Marsh received the Grand Master Award in 1978.

The plot of Tied Up in Tinsel is a bit darker than most of Marsh’s books. The murderers provide a rather creepy touch at times, along with the darkness caused by the snowstorm. As with many of Marsh’s books, Alleyn doesn’t make an appearance until later in the book. But what makes this more unique is that it takes even longer before a body appears, since so much of the mystery is a missing person’s case.

But what makes this book work is Marsh’s gift for drawing characters and the unique people who appear in this book. One of the best characters in all of the Roderick Alleyn books is Alleyn’s wife, Agatha Troy, so I appreciate the fact that she appears throughout the whole book. She has such a strong presence that we all fall in love with her. The murderers also have a lot of personality that brings the book to life. Each one has a unique set of features that makes every one so realistic, making the book feel creative.

Wanda McCaddon, who usually narrates her Marsh books under the nom de vox of Nadia May, performs the audio edition of this book effectively and creatively. She uses strong expression in her narration of this book and makes it an enjoyable listening experience.

While Tied Up in Tinsel is not one of Marsh’s best books, it is still fun because almost any book by Marsh is a delight to read. The characters make the book creative, even more than most of her books, though all have clever depictions of characters. I give the book four stars.

To purchase this book for yourself, click here on Amazon.

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