Marsh – Tied up in Tinsel (1972)

Troy has been commissioned to paint the picture of Hilary Bill-Tasman at his
ancestral home Halberds. Hilary is a very rich snob, who’s fortune derives
from his father’s success in the antiques trade, which he built up in
partnership with a rag and bone man called Bert Smith, and a couple of pools wins (Hilary must have been extraordinarily lucky); Hilary was actually
raised by an Uncle and Aunt – Colonel and Mrs Forrester.

 He is in the process of restoring Halberds, which is at the edge of a moor in the midst of which is a prison, sparing no expense in the process. Hilary’s is engaged to Cressida Tottenham, who forms part of the house party which assembles for Christmas at Halberds (the Forresters and Bert Smith forming the other members). As he was finding it hard to get servants at Halberds, due to its isolated position, Hilary hit on the idea of hiring convicted murderers recently released from prison, and five such characters form the peculiar staff. As soon as the house-party is assembled practical jokes and poison pen letters (each in some way referring to the nature of the crime for which the murderers were convicted) start to appear. Then during the elaborate Christmas festivities the Forrsters servant Moult (not a convicted
murderer!) disappears. Alleyn, summoned by Troy, is on-hand to start
investigating.

It will instantly be seen that the basic scenario here has a close
similarity to Final Curtain ; once again Troy is painting a portrait in a
country house populated with a bizarre cast of characters – Marsh completes the echo by having Alleyn being away in Australia (New Zealand in Final
Curtain
) at the start of the book (although it being 1972 rather than 1947
his return can be effected far more speedily!). But the character roster in
this book has a very different look. Indeed the plot summary given above is
such a classic mystery writer’s/fan’s dream that there is a more than slight
suspicion of jeu d’esprit about the whole venture. A clue may perhaps be
given by the appearance of a very minor character called Thomas Appleby;
Hilary and his menagerie are characters who might well have appeared in
Innes. This is not to suggest that the book is some kind of Innes pastiche;
Marsh imposes her own stamp and a certain bleakness keeps breaking through.
But if you take the very last lines of the book, in which Alleyn makes a
black and rather uncharacteristic joke, I think one can perceive that Marsh
intended this to be lighter than usual. And in many ways she succeeds – the
murderers are a delight, the Christmas celebrations a glorious absurdity and
Hilary himself a fantastic character. My own problem with the book however is much the same as my problem with Final Curtain and revolves around the
character of Cressida Tottenham (Sonia Orrincourt in Final Curtain) –
another sexually voracious young woman. But leaving this on one side Tied up in Tinsel is a late jewel of a book and a must for all country-house mystery aficionados.

(June 2007)

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