Monday, December 6, 2010

In The Spotlight: Ngaio Marsh's Tied Up in Tinsel

Hello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Ngaio Marsh is justly considered 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 he’s won lots of fans. Besides, I am overdue for featuring the work of a Kiwi author, anyway (I know, I know, Craig and Vanda ;-)). So today, let’s take a closer look at Ngaio Marsh’s Tied Up in Tinsel.

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. 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.

In the end, Alleyn and the other detectives discover Moult’s killer. They find out that his murder has to do with a secret he’s been keeping. And that theme of people not telling everything they know is one of the elements that runs through this story. Just about everyone in the novel is hiding something. The house guests all have things they’re not admitting, and of course the staff is composed of criminals. They aren’t exactly keen to discuss their pasts, either.

Several other elements also 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. When Alleyn arrives, he’s naturally concerned for his wife’s safety, and wants to take her right away. Troy’s not exactly enamoured of Halbard’s, and she is afraid, but she’s hardly a terrified, “shrinking violet.” Agatha Troy is an intelligent, strong, competent and interesting character, and she adds interest and “spice” to the novel.

There’s also a good deal of humour in the novel. For instance, at one point, several groups of police officers have formed search parties to look for Alfred Moult. Here’s a peek at what happens when Alleyn and Superintendent Wrayburn are told that a search party has found Moult:

“They [Wrayburn and Alleyn] had not gone far before they saw a stationary light and a recumbent figure clearly visible spread-eagled and face down in the snow. Someone was stooping over it. As they drew near the stooping figure rose and began to kick the recumbent one.

‘My God!’ Wrayburn roared out, ‘what’s he doing? My God! Is he mad? Stop him!’

He turned to Alleyn and found him doubled up…

Wisps of rank, wet straw were blown into their faces.

Hillary would have to get a new scarecrow.”

We also see plenty of humour in the form of Slyboots and Smartypants, house cats who belong to Bill-Tasman’s chef, Cooke. Cressida Tottenham can’t stand cats, and Bill-Tasman tries to smooth things over by asking that the cats be kept out-of-doors while Cressida is there. Cooke naturally resents this state of affairs – and Cressida, who’s an annoying character as it is. So do the cats. They manage to wangle their way back into the house, and they and Cressida create quite a scene when they frighten her one night and end up breaking an expensive vase. The staff secretly enjoys seeing Cressida making a fool of herself and the moment adds a welcome light touch to the impending sense of danger.

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. But what’s your view? Have you read Tied Up in Tinsel? What elements do you see in it?

Coming Up On In The Spotlight

Monday 13 December/Tuesday 14 December – Mind’s Eye – Håkan Nesser

Monday 20 December/Tuesday 21 December – The Grave Tattoo – Val McDermid

Monday 27 December/Tuesday 28 December – The Far Side of the Dollar – Ross Macdonald


  1. Haven't read this one (adding it to the ever-growing list), but I do like her humor and how she always brings her love of theater and art into the mix.

  2. John - I agree completely. Marsh really does create comic situations that aren't overly ludicrous, and I, too thoroughly enjoy the way she integrates the arts.

  3. I'm sad that I've not read this book. The little excerpt that you had was so funny! I love it when the author adds humor to offset the seriousness of the novel. ANother great spotlight.


  4. Clarissa - Thanks :-)! There are actually several little moments like that in the novel (although to be honest, I did the "trailer" thing and picked one of the funniest to share ;-) ). I think you'd like this one and I agree; little dashes of well-timed humour can add much to a novel.

  5. No not read the book, but I am adding it to my ever growing list.

    I just loved that bit about the scarecrow, more so becaues something very similar happened at home over the weekend with a toy Stuart Little!

  6. Rayna - I hope you'll enjoy this; I think (just my opinion) it's a fine read. And I had to laugh out loud at your mention of your weekend adventure with the toy Stuart Little. I hope you will Drabble about it, because you've intrigued me!

  7. Another wonderful spotlight. I always enjoy these so much. I haven't read this book either, but it is definitely going on my 'to be read' list. Just the fact of the staff having served time for murder makes it intriguing. Add in the other interesting tidbits and the dots of humor and it sounds like a wonderful read.

    Thoughts in Progress

  8. Mason - Why, thank you :-)! The staff's backgrounds are really intriguing, and they're all rather oddball characters, too. And of course, the humour just makes the book that much better. And who can resist a book with a cat called Smartypants? ;-).

  9. I always enjoyed Alleyn having a wife with a profession that came into play now and then. One of my favorite series. I read them all in the seventies with great pleasure.

  10. Patti - Oh, I think that's a really wonderful aspect of this series. Not only does Troy's profession come into play in several of the novels, but she's a fascinating character. She's smart, interesting, and certainly is her own person.

  11. I didn´t recognize the title so I must have read the Danish translation. Thank you for reminding me of this one.

    I remember that you brought up this question if murderers were likely to murder again recently, but I still think that theft and violence are crimes you will commit again and again, whereas many real life murderers only do it once. And that is probably why so few real murders make brilliant stories: the antagonist is often a desperate husband or wife who calls the police afterwards or sits waiting for them to arrive, ready to confess their crime.

    Well, I admit that there are exceptions. A few years ago a Danish man called the police because his wife had been killed by some foreign-looking car thieves. When the husband tried to stop them, they entered his home and killed the sleeping wife. When we heard about this crime, I looked at my husband and told him that either they were psychopaths, or the husband had killed her and now he tried to cover it up. Guess what the police said on the news the next day?

  12. Thanks for yet another amazing "In the spotlight" post. I threw my TBR list in the bin and picked this one up..... Did not regret the decision!

    It may be really interesting to adapt this story into a play. This one is custom built for it.

  13. Dorte - Wow! What a story about the alleged car thieves!! I can't say that I'm shocked that it turned out to be the husband, but what a horrible thing to do and, of course, you were quite savvy to know what probably happened. You actually do have an interesting point, too, about the difference between thievery and that kind of violence and murder. I haven't read any real research on this, but I wouldn't be surprised if there is a difference between repeat offenses for those who kill versus those who commit other kinds of crimes. Interesting.....

    Amey - You are very kind :-). I'm very glad you enjoyed the book, too! And you know, I hadn't thought about it, but you are quite right; this one would really be a terrific play. I don't know if it's ever been adapted, but it lends itself beautifully.

  14. I read Tied up in Tinsel as a Christmas book last year - it seemed a perfectly apt bit of seasonal reading with 'seasonal malice.'

    I loved it - especially with the varied attitudes to the checkered pasts of the staff. Ngaio Marsh had great ways of getting her readers to think about social mores and attitudes.

    Other than the social commentary, it was a ripper yarn with an inventive place to hide a body!

  15. It has been so long since I've read one of Ngaio Marsh's books that I remember very little about them. Sounds like an author to revisit.

  16. Vanda - I'm so glad you commented; I thought of you when I wrote this post. And you're right; that was a wonderful place to hide a body :-). You also bring up an interesting point about Marsh's way of handling serious topics. The way the different characters think about the staff's backgrounds really was a very effective way to get readers to think about the larger issues. It takes talent to tell a terrific story and get readers thinking. Marsh certainly succeeded.

    Patricia - Marsh is definitely an author worth re-reading, I think. She had a terrific way of telling a good story, weaving a little humour through the novel and creating interesting characters, among other things.