Tied Up in Tinsel (Roderick Alleyn #27), Ngaio Marsh. New York: Felony & Mayhem Press, 2015 (Originally published in 1972).
Summary: Hilary Bill-Talsman is the subject of a Troy portrait and host of a Christmas house party that includes a Druid Pageant, marred when the chief Druid disappears. Alleyn arrives from overseas just in time to solve the mystery.
Hilary Bill-Talsman, an entrepreneur and nouveaux riche is rehabilitating an old manor house, Halberds, to which Troy has been invited to paint his portrait, and if he can persuade her, his fiancée, Cressida Tottenham. The holidays are approaching, Alleyn is away on assignment, and Hilary has persuaded Troy to stay for the Christmas pageant on a Druid theme, along with his house guests, Colonel Fleaton Forrester, Hilary’s uncle and his wife, along with their “man” Moult, formerly under the Colonel’s command, Bert Smith, an expert on antiques, and the aforementioned Cressida.
It’s an interesting lot, to be sure, but even more interesting is the household staff, all former murderers who have done their time. Staffing a manor house in the 1970’s, when this is set, is difficult. Hilary covers this with his social experiment. Particularly disturbing is Nigel, whose mental state is questionable, seeing “sinners” behind every bush, as it were. Yet the house seems to run smoothly, they get along and the only conflicts are between them and Moult, who has a streak of unpleasantness mixed with being prone to excess, and Cressida, who is averse to Cooke the cook’s cats.
Colonel Forrester is set to play the chief Druid, the counterpart of Father Christmas, whose appearance with gifts is the climax of the pageant. But he has a propensity for spells, and worked up as he is, he succumbs to one. Unbeknownst to everyone except for Cressida who helps him with his costume, Moult takes his place and pulls it off. Only after helping him remove the beard in a cloakroom, does Cressida inform Mrs. Forrester of the Colonel’s indisposition. Only afterwards do they notice that Moult has disappeared. A search of the house and grounds is made but he is nowhere to be found.
It’s at this juncture that Alleyn, having finished up an overseas assignment early, turns up, advises contacting the authorities, and stays on to help with the investigation. It turns into a murder investigation, when he spots four of the house staff moving a large box in the middle of the night, a box that contains Moult’s body. Yet despite the protests of the guests, Alleyn is not inclined to suspect the former murderers.
Marsh is a master of the “murder at a house party” genre but I have to admit that this one wasn’t my favorite. It takes half the book to get to the murder, a lot of stage setting, a series of malicious messages and pranks intended to incriminate one or more of the staff. And the identity of the murderer did not come as a surprise, only the motive. At the same time, the setting of the mood during Troy’s walk in the country and the later search during the storm, the description of the pageant, and the fascinating character of Hilary were all masterfully done.
This was one of two Marsh novels to be nominated for an Edgar Award, the other being Killer Dolphin. I’m not sure I understand the nomination of this book, which I did not find nearly as well-written as Killer Dolphin or some of her other works. It may just have been the year.