RogerBW's Blog

Tied Up In Tinsel, Ngaio Marsh 02 December 2017

1972 classic English detective fiction; twenty-seventh of Marsh's novels of Inspector Roderick Alleyn. Troy is painting a portrait of Hilary Bill-Tasman, which means staying at his country house for Christmas. But a servant disappears in the storm, and Troy's husband is certain to be involved.

All the other servants are former murderers, who for whatever reason weren't executed. It's a conscious eccentricity by Bill-Tasman in the guise of rehabilitation, and it's the most forced element here, but Marsh clearly asks one to go along with it for the sake of the story, and mostly it works.

Hilary said that when next she visited Halberds she would look down upon lawns and a vista through cypress trees leading to a fountain with stone dolphins. Troy wondered just how successful these improvements would be in reducing the authority of those ominous hills.

Marsh is obviously aware that one of the rules of the detective-story is that it's cheating if a servant did it, but she plays with that, and with the obligatory Young Couple In Love, until the reader really can't rely on narrative shape to provide the solution. As a reasonably experienced reader of mysteries who prefers to solve them by endogenous information (i.e. not by the shape of the narrative), I applaud this.

The packing case was mantled in frozen snow and on top of it, sharply carved and really quite impressive in his glittering iciness, lay Hilary's Bill-Tasman ancestor, his hands crossed, rather like flatfish, on his breast.

As always, Marsh regards crime as a question of motivation and opportunity more than one of personality, but with the murder only happening half-way through the book there's plenty of room for the personalities too. There are unpleasant people here, but where some of Marsh's books have just made everyone entirely horrid, here she manages to show at least a little bit of good in everybody (even the murderer). These are, for the most part, people rather than cardboard cut-outs, and that's why I've come to rate Marsh over Christie; I couldn't see Marsh, as Christie sometimes did, writing this book in first draft, and only then deciding on the murderer and going back to tweak the clues. Here there's only one person it could be, and changing that would mean substantial re-writing.

"And now I'm in the delirious position of having to use departmental tact and make routine inquiries with my wife."

"Perhaps," Mr. Wrayburn dimly speculated, "she'll think it funny."

Alleyn stared at him. "You know," he said at last, "you've got something there. I wouldn't be at all surprised if she did." He thought for a moment. "And I daresay," he said, "that in a macabre sort of way she'll be, as usual, right."

And, finally, Troy isn't got out of the way once Alleyn arrives. He would clearly like to, and fair enough, but unlike the situation in Clutch of Constables he can't bring it off, and she's present and involved till the end. If she's going to be in the books at all, I feel, this is far better than having her used to set up the situation and then shuffled off to let the big boys get on with the detecting.

"She went in, boots and all, after you, didn't she?"

"If only," Alleyn said, "I could detect one pinch, one soup-con, of the green-eyed monster in you, my dish, I'd crow like a bloody rooster."

All right, it's not very 1972. The female half of the Young Couple In Love seems to be some sort of disreputable pseudo-actress ("she went to an academy of sorts and thence into something she calls Organic Expressivism") and talks in a mess of modern slang with no regard for anyone's sensitivities; but really, she could have been a latecoming Bright Young Thing in the 1930s, and the rest of the book would fit better there. The house may have been done up with central heating and lots of extra bathrooms, but there's no mention of television, and not even a wireless in sight.

He walked up to them. The three men crowded together in front of the case. "God!" he thought. "How irremediably pitiable and squalid."

He saw that each of them was using the others, hopelessly, as some sort of protection for himself. They had a need to touch each other, to lose their separate indentities, to congeal.

Yes, there's an actual mystery here, and it's reasonably soluble both by evidence and by motivation. And the people work. Marsh is still at the top of her game, if not entirely happy with modernity, and this is a book that shows well what a country-house detective story can be. Followed by Black As He's Painted.

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