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