Tied Up in Tinsel
New Zealander Ngaio Marsh is one of the great writers of the Golden Age of crime fiction. Her sleuth, Inspector Roderick Alleyn, is one of the more famous “gentleman detectives” of that era, and one of the Hound's greatest crime fighters.
Holed up at Hilary Bill-Tasman's manor estate for Christmas, Troy Alleyn is to paint the man's portrait and, while she's there, view the Druid Christmas pageant. Along with a pack of eccentric guests, Troy enjoys the festivities - until one of the pageant's players mysteriously disappears into the snowy night. Did the hired help - each a paroled murderer from the nearby prison - have a deadly hand in this Christmas conundrum? Inspector Roderick Alleyn arrives to join his wife in finding the lost man - and unraveling the glaring truth from the glittering tinsel.
Bill-Tasman believes that these people are not by nature violent; they committed one crime in a desperate moment and aren’t likely to kill again. He also believes in giving them a chance to make a life for themselves after prison. A special event is planned for Christmas Eve at Halbards. Bill-Tasman’s uncle, Colonel Fleaton “Uncle Flea” Forrester and his aunt Bedelia “Aunt Bed” are spending the holiday there, as is his fiancée Cressida Tottenham. Also invited is Bert Smith, a business associate of Bill-Tasman’s and an authority on antiques.
On Christmas Eve, Uncle Flea is scheduled to dress up as a Druid and distribute gifts to the local children at a large party to be held at the house. Just before he’s supposed to put on his costume, though, Uncle Flea has what he calls one of his Turns, and is too ill to go “onstage.” His longtime servant Alfred Moult volunteers to take his place and Uncle Flea agrees. The “big moment” arrives, and sure enough, the Druid visits with a large number of presents for the children. Shortly afterward, though, Moult disappears. At first, it’s thought that he drank too much and went somewhere to “sleep it off.” When he hasn’t returned the next day, though, everyone gets concerned. To add to the tension, someone’s been playing some unpleasant practical jokes. The local police are called in but even with their help, no-one can find Moult. Meanwhile, Alleyn has returned to England. He wants Troy to leave Halbards right away and leave the case to the local law. But he’s persuaded to come to Halbards and join in the investigation. It’s just as well he’s there, because not long afterward, Moult’s body is found. Now the search for a missing person has become a search for a killer.
Several elements run through this novel. One of them is the theme of character. All of the members of Bill-Tasman’s staff are convicted criminals. And each of them behaves in ways that you could consider suspicious. Certainly Troy and Cressida Tottenham feel uncomfortable around them, and Alfred Moult despises them. All of them assume that the staff members are shady people who are likely to commit crimes again. So do Alleyn, Sergeant Fox and the local police, who are only too happy to suspect one of the staff members of killing Moult. Bill-Tasman, on the other hand, has quite a lot of faith in his staff. He sees them as people who just need a chance in life and honest work in which they can take pride. He also sees them as people with talents whose skills he needs. He considers the staffers “oncers” – people who commit one crime out of desperation, but would never do so again. That’s how the staff members view themselves, too. These differing viewpoints make for a very interesting debate on whether a person who commits a crime is the same thing as a criminal.
We also see class differences in this novel, although they are more subtle than the debate about what makes a criminal. The “well-born” house party doesn’t come in for much suspicion, at least at first. In part it’s because of their social positions, although Marsh makes it clear that they’re not completely above suspicion. Still, the local police give them only a cursory glance, so to speak, at first. You could argue that that’s because of the staffers’ criminal pasts more than their social positions, but the element of class does play a role in the way the detectives pursue the case. Class also plays an important role in the solution of the case.And then there’s the character of Agatha Troy. It’s true that Alleyn, Fox and the team of detectives find out who played the practical jokes and what happened to Alfred Moult. But for much of the novel, Troy is one of the central characters. Several parts of the story are told from her point of view, and she herself is a strong, confident person. For instance, she’s the victim of one of the practical jokes that have been going on, as you might say, in the background. Instead of being frightened and truly shocked, Troy’s more interested in figuring out how it happened. In fact, when she asks one of the staff members about the joke, he’s more afraid that she’ll accuse him of being responsible than she is of the ongoing tension in the house.
The classic Golden Age themes of hidden secrets and sudden death against an English manor house backdrop form the “frame” of this novel. Woven through the story are threads of humour, the strong character of Agatha Troy, and some important questions about birth, class, and what it means to be a criminal. And all of this is supported by a group of oddball characters – one of Ngaio Marsh’s trademarks.
About Ngaio Marsh:
Dame Ngaio Marsh, born Edith Ngaio Marsh, was a New Zealand crime writer and theatre director. There is some uncertainty over her birth date as her father neglected to register her birth until 1900, but she was born in the city of Christchurch, New Zealand.
Of all the "Great Ladies" of the English mystery's golden age, including Margery Allingham, Agatha Christie, and Dorothy L. Sayers, Ngaio Marsh alone survived to publish in the 1980s. Over a fifty-year span, from 1932 to 1982, Marsh wrote thirty-two classic English detective novels, which gained international acclaim. She did not always see herself as a writer, but first planned a career as a painter.Marsh's first novel, A MAN LAY DEAD (1934), which she wrote in London in 1931-32, introduced the detective Inspector Roderick Alleyn: a combination of Sayers's Lord Peter Wimsey and a realistically depicted police official at work. Throughout the 1930s Marsh painted occasionally, wrote plays for local repertory societies in New Zealand, and published detective novels. In 1937 Marsh went to England for a period. Before going back to her home country, she spent six months travelling about Europe. All her novels feature British CID detective Roderick Alleyn. Several novels feature Marsh's other loves, the theatre and painting. A number are set around theatrical productions (Enter a Murderer, Vintage Murder, Overture to Death, Opening Night, Death at the Dolphin, and Light Thickens), and two others are about actors off stage (Final Curtain and False Scent). Her short story "'I Can Find My Way Out" is also set around a theatrical production and is the earlier "Jupiter case" referred to in Opening Night. Alleyn marries a painter, Agatha Troy, whom he meets during an investigation (Artists in Crime), and who features in several later novels.
The novel begins with a portrait-painting session. Hilary Bill-Tasman has commissioned noted artist Agatha Troy to paint his portrait over the Christmas holiday. Since Troy’s husband, Inspector Roderick Alleyn, is out of the country on a case anyway, she’s accepted the commission. She’s staying at the Bill-Tasman home, Halbards, while she completes the painting. Halbards is rather unusual in that all of the staff is composed of people who’ve served time in prison for murder.