Ngaio Marsh's Tied Up in Tinsel

With Christmas fast approaching, consider taking a break from the stress by relaxing with a good mystery novel. At this time of year, traditional British mysteries are particularly appealing; their depiction of a nostalgic and traditional order acts as a soothing countermeasure to the hectic pace of the season. Golden Age novels such as Georgette Heyer’s Envious Casca (see my post) and Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (see my post), as well as English cozy’s like Cyril Hare’s An English Christmas, Martha Grimes’s Jerusalem Inn (see my post), and Anne Perry’s A Christmas Secret (see my post) are also set in the Yuletide season. (Click here for a list of recommended Christmas mystery novels).

Ngaio Marsh’s Tied up in Tinsel takes place in an English country house. Host, Hilary Bill-Tasman, invites close friends and relatives to his rural mansion to spend the holiday season. Artist, Troy Alleyn, is commissioned to paint a portrait of the host. With snow gently falling outside, the party of guests trims the Christmas tree and feasts on traditional fare. All goes well until one of the guest’s servants disappears. Suspicion falls upon Hilary’s own servants, a strange crew of men, each with criminal backgrounds. When Troy’s husband, Superintendent Roderick Alleyn of Scotland Yard, returns unexpectedly from an Australian mission, he is asked to join the party and solve the mystery.

Marsh published her first mystery novel in 1931 (A Man Lay Dead). She went on to write 31 detective novels, all featuring the gentleman detective, Superintendent Roderick Alleyn. He meets Troy in Artists in Crime and marries her in a subsequent novel. Troy is a talented artist who is frequently invited to paint portraits of the rich and famous; her job usually involves moving into their mansions for a period of time (see my post on her novel, Death and the Dancing Footman). Troy’s husband is called in whenever a serious crime is committed. Marsh herself was a talented artist, trained as a painter at the Canterbury College of Art. Her artist’s eye soon translated into descriptive powers as a writer (DuBose 2000, 248).

Like Troy, Marsh is skilled at reading and depicting character. “Few mystery writers,” DuBose claims, “have been so deft at drawing life sketches of instantly intriguing characters or making victims so interesting” (DuBose 2000, 270). A host of unusual, eccentric characters dominate Tied up in Tinsel. The eccentricities of these characters make them prime suspects in the crime.

Marsh’s detective books are also accomplished novel of manners. “Her capacity for amused observation of the undercurrents beneath ordinary interchanges,” observes Symons, “was so good that one hoped for more than she ever tried to do” (1992, 165).

Marsh’s other passion was the theatre. She directed, managed, and acted in plays throughout her life. Five of her novels are set in a theatre and three additional mysteries involve the murder of stage stars (DuBose 2000, 251). In all her work, the motif of acting is intertwined with theme of secrecy and masked performances (see my blog on her novel, Final Curtain). Tied up in Tinsel, in true theatrical style, begins with a “cast of characters.” The servant who goes missing acts as Santa Claus in a short dramatization, one that masks an appalling crime.

If you like character-driven mystery novels and enjoy the arts, you will find Tied up in Tinsel perfectly suited to your taste.

DuBose, Martha Hailey. Women of Mystery: The Lives and Works of Notable Women Crime Novelists. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2000.

Marsh, Ngaio. Tied up in Tinsel. 1972. In Clutch of Constables, When in Rome, Tied up in Tinsel. London: Harper, 2009.

Symons, Julian. Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel. New York: Mysterious Press, 1992.