During WW2 Christie’s work mostly does not directly refer to the conflict that was going on, except today’s read which is the exception. Unlike Dorothy L. Sayers in The Wimsey Papers, Christie does not have Poirot or Miss Marple involved in war work or expressing their views on current events. N or M? (1941), the third Tommy and Tuppence Beresford novel, is not Christie’s best book by any means but one I have always been fond of, which made it all the more galling when this title was unfortunately massacred in its 2015 TV adaptation.
But on with the book itself, which begins with Tommy having been turned down for more war work. Tuppence too has been refused nursing work and both are feeling fairly cheesed off that they are considered unfit for work, purely on the grounds of them being in their late 40s. Yet things soon change for Tommy when a man from British Intelligence asks him to go down to Leahampton, a seaside resort; in particular to go and stay at a guest house called San Souci, in order to identify German and British 5th Columnists. Two key operatives named N and M are Tommy’s targets. This is less farfetched than it sounds, as Tommy is working on leads another operative has been investigating, before their untimely and very deliberate death. Of course Tuppence is not to be involved and Tommy is to give her a cover story. Yet by the end of Chapter 1 Tommy is in for a surprise when he finds that one of the other guests at San Souci, a Mrs Blenkensop, seems awfully familiar… Tommy and Tuppence both set to work independently, yet their choices for possible 5th columnists seem fairly limited: a young mother and her toddler, a hostess with something to hide and her rebellious daughter, an elderly spinster, a retired military man, a hypochondriac and his overly-devote wife and a German refugee – a collection of people who seem so obviously innocent that the reader must treat them with extreme suspicion and of people who seem so obviously guilty, that the reader can’t help but see them as red herrings. But who will N and M eventually turn out to be? (And no one of them is not the toddler…)
I think one of the things this re-read has brought out for me is how unlike a typical war novel this book is in some respects. Despite the dangers I would say this mission is more of an escape for Tommy and Tuppence than serious work. Very early on in the book Christie emphasises the benefits to mental health through having a proper purpose and work, during wartime conditions. Perhaps this is especially the case for Tuppence who very much gets into her alias role, which incidentally also enables her to release some of her pent up anxieties about her children. Equally she does not feel bad lying, unlike Tommy, saying ‘I don’t mind lying in the least. To be quite honest I get a lot of artistic pleasure out of my lies.’ Whilst there is much war talk, whilst wearing what Tuppence calls their ‘war masks’, the first half of the novel easily is very domesticated. The final third of the book runs more to the thriller, but this book is definitely at its strongest within the domestic sphere and definitely at its most deadly. The event which shifts the focus from the domestic to the thriller also intrigued me. I won’t say what it is but again its presence and ultimate explanation is quite untypical for a war novel.
In conjunction with the emphasis on the domestic, I think the use fairy tale and fantasy literary references also gave this story less of a wartime feel and also a sense of unreality and therefore escape. At the end of the book, you can almost imagine a short narrative passage giving the story a back from Narnia or ‘oh it’s all been a dream’ finale. Or maybe that is just me? The sense of unrealism begins quite early on when Tuppence makes the comment that: ‘To believe in Sans Souci as a headquarters of the Fifth Column needed the mental equipment of the White Queen in Alice.’ Furthermore the way Christie describes one of the other guests, a Mrs O’Rourke, and the guesthouse owner both add to this with the larger than life sense of danger perceived in them. For instance Mrs O’Rourke is described as ‘rather like an ogress dimly remembered from early fairy tales. With her bulk, her deep voice, her unabashed beard and moustache, her deep twinkling eyes and the impression she gave of being more than life-size, she was indeed not unlike some childhood’s fantasy’ and at one point in the tale Tuppence thinks to herself that she felt ‘now exactly like Hansel or Gretel accepting the witch’s invitation.’ Whilst the big bad wolf from Red Riding Hood is evoked when Tuppence’s latest encounter with her hostess leads to a comment on ‘Those teeth, so big and so white- the better to eat you with, my dear.’ I suppose when it comes to war based mysteries, thriller and more stereotypically masculine based tropes come more readily to mind, so I found this diversion into fairy tales and the feminine quite unusual in a good way.
Perhaps also the interludes of marital comedy equally lessen the war focus in the story and for me one of the gravest sins of the aforementioned adaptation was its misreading of this comedy which turned both the Beresfords into buffoons. One of my favourite exchanges in the book is when Tommy and Tuppence, following on from a discussion about the overly devoted Mrs Cayley, say:
Tommy: ‘I have often noticed that being a devoted wife saps the intellect.’
Tuppence: ‘And where have you noticed that?’
Tommy: ‘Not from you, Tuppence, Your devotion has never reached those lengths.’
It is exchanges such as this one which really capture the bond between the pair of them and I think it is in this book that we really see a balanced partnership between the two. Often with married sleuths, the wife often gets an increasingly marginalised role, but I love how involved Tuppence is throughout this book and in fact I would say she is the better sleuth of the two of them in this case. Oh and before I forget the BBC adaptation also cut out the appearances of the Beresford’s now grown up children, which is a big shame, as it is in these little scenes that it is hard to avoid smiling as the Beresford children completely miss what their parents are really up to.
So all in all there are various things you can quibble about with this book and for me the final third is perhaps drawn out too much, but I also found lots to enjoy. Tuppence is as I mentioned above on top form and I love how she resists the assumption that middle age leaves her only fit for knitting and this line about her really struck me: ‘Tuppence gave a snort of rage, tossed her glossy black head and sent her ball of khaki wool spinning from her lap.’ Unlike with a number of my other Christie re-reads there were a number of plot events that I had forgotten, including one twist, so the ending had more novelty for me than I was expecting. One half of the solution is pure thriller but I think Christie was able to wrangle some of her sneaky clue magic into the other half, the half of course I enjoyed the most. Christie’s thrillers after this point definitely take a nose dive in quality, in my opinion, grabbling with ideologies which she can’t convincingly portray. But here I think she felt surer of her ground, with the focus on the domestic and the intrusions of patriotism and political ideologies are more authentically woven into the plot, the fears of German invasion being that much more concrete than megalomaniacs planning world domination a. k. a. Destination Unknown.