Review: Tied Up in Tinsel by Ngaio Marsh

Cover Image-Tied Up in Tinsel by Ngaio Marsh

Merry Christmas! I hope everyone had a warm, safe, and fun holiday celebration. And I hope those who don’t celebrate Christmas were more amused than annoyed by those of us who do.
I wasn’t sure whether I’d get to read and review a holiday mystery this month, because my hands were always full with work, cooking, or presents. I enjoy making gifts when I can, especially for those folks who “have it all” or are hard to buy for. This year, that  meant knitting!
There was a teaser for this particular present in my recent interview at Cozy Up with Kathy. It’s a pair of clockwork gauntlets for a young lady who enjoys reading steampunk. They turned out great, in my humble opinion. What do you think?
Steampunk Gauntlets
Fortunately my husband reminded me that audiobooks are a thing that exist. I’ve not had a great experience with audiobooks in the past. I tend to get distracted by my thoughts and miss parts of the book, or get immersed in the story and miss important cues from the outside world (like stove timers, doorbells, or firetrucks.) But they turned out to be a perfect accompaniment for handwork, and helped me replace TV time with reading time – always an improvement!
If you’ve been around a while, you’ve heard me talk about my love for Ngaio Marsh. She unfailingly delivered a proper dose of cozy holiday mystery with her 1972 country-house mystery, Tied Up in Tinsel. This is number 27 in the Inspector Alleyn series.
Like the master craftsman that she is, Marsh delivers on a tried-and-true setup without being predictable or cheap. Marsh gives her book a contemporary setting, and acknowledges the social, economic, and physical changes in the English countryside that made that period so different from the pre-World War II milieu of iconic Golden Age mysteries. She cleverly sets her scene so that these differences help drive the plot, rather than becoming distractions to jar us out of our suspension of disbelief.
Agatha Troy, an A-list portraitist, is commissioned to paint an eccentric antiques dealer with the delightful name of Hilary Bill-Tasman. As an American in 2017, I couldn’t help but get a chuckle every time the narrator said “Hillary Bill…” I wonder what (if anything) Ms. Marsh would have thought if she knew her character’s silly name would one day invoke a political power couple?
Mr. Bill-Tasman, having a passion for antiques, is in the process of restoring a stately home to its former glory. He dreams of living like a lord of the manor, with or without a title. The property’s location may have knocked a bit off the price, as it is just next door to a maximum-security prison. But a stately home needs staff, and attracting good help to a remote location would be prohibitively expensive.
Mr. Bill-Tasman solves this dilemma by hiring ex-convicts from the prison. And not just any convicts – murderers. More specifically, “once-ers:” murderers with a single victim, under circumstances so unusual or idiosyncratic that they would be unlikely to ever be so provoked again. I have no idea if the theory of “once-ers'” relative harmlessness is true, but within the story it is supported by both the warden of the prison and the Chief Inspector himself. It certainly goes against Hercule Poirot’s theory that a person who once takes a life is liable to become seduced into killing again and again.
I’ll throw it open to debate: do you have any experience or research on this notion? Are “once-ers” more or less likely to kill again? Would you stake your life on it?
While Agatha Troy is finishing Mr. Bill-Tasman’s portrait, guests begin to arrive for a Christmas house party. Since Troy’s husband Inspector Alleyn is abroad on a case, she accepts an invitation to stay for the holiday celebration. During an elaborate pageant for the village children, a member of the household disappears into the snowy night. By a happy coincidence, Alleyn returns early from his trip and is able to join Troy at the Tasman estate. Despite Alleyn’s (rather weak) resistance, the local constabulary is overjoyed to turn the case over to a famous Scotland Yard detective.
The best thing about Tied Up in Tinsel is that is greater than the sum of its parts. It is so very much itself — a traditional cozy Christmas mystery — that it’s hard to describe the book without making it sound predictable, dry, or twee. It is none of these! There are well-drawn characters with hidden depths, enjoyable repartee, thorough detective work with fair-play on the clues, and a proper trick ending. I’d read the book before and still guessed completely wrong.
One very nice feature is the comfortable, settled love between Alleyn and Troy. They were a knotted-up pair of neurotics when they met, but Marsh allowed time and marriage to mellow them into a satisfying groove. They know and accept each other’s flaws, while still being charmed and even thrilled by each other. Their relationship always puts a smile on my face.
The print book is available on Amazon here. The audiobook is narrated by Wanda McCaddon, whose voice and delivery give just the right warmth and gravitas to suit the season and the story. At first, I mistook her for Harriet Walter, who played Harriet Vane in the 1980’s TV adaptations of the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries (and more recently, Clemmie Churchill in The Crown & Lady Shackleton in Downton Abbey). The notion added a nice frisson of fandoms colliding, but of course Ms. McCaddon is a wonderful artist in her own right. That version is available on Audible – right now, it’s on a free trial with an Audible subscription.
I give Tied Up in Tinsel a solid four stars.

Squick Factor:

By request, I include a “squick factor” rating on reviews, to give tenderhearted readers a heads-up on graphic or disturbing material.

Though Tied Up in Tinsel came out in the 1970’s, it’s a classic Golden Age mystery through and through. The murder is a puzzle, nearly abstract in its tidiness. Squick factor: Nil.

Squick Factor Range:
0 – Nil.
1 – Meh.
2 – Kinda.
3 – Oh yah, you betcha.
4 – GAAAHHH! Nuke it from space!

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