N or M? (1941) by Agatha Christie

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…)

Overall Thoughts

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.

Rating: 4/5

See also:

Brad, Ali, Kerrie, Moira and the Puzzle Doctor have also reviewed this novel.

32 comments

  1. Thanks for the link at the end, Kate. There are many things to like here, including this being the harbinger of the 1940’s titles where Christie actually lets the real world intrude on her fiction. I like that there are two spies, one for Tommy and one for Tuppence! 🙂 I think the thriller part is lifted straight out of the most hoary tale in the Parker Pyne collection, but as I’ve been reading a lot recently about GAD purposely not evoking real life, you almost don’t mind it. (And it gets Albert back into the game!)

    I remember in my first read liking the reveal of the female spy. But I did feel in my last re-read that the story dragged, although I agree with you that the domestic aspects are the most satisfying in the way they show how “ordinary” people sat out the war and how people deemed “unworthy” of service in a very patriotic war chafed at the bit to help. It’s the first glimmers of Christie dealing with the concept of aging that would preoccupy her more and more in the future.

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    • Yes the unreality of this one didn’t bother me, but I think that is due to the strengths of the central duo. Oh how I wish the adaptation had done this book justice as it is so much fun! I like how the danger predominately lies within the domestic arena, which provides quite a contrast to how Tommy “finds” his spy. Tuppence is probably that mad friend who always gets you into bizarre adventures and I like how age doesn’t dim this (well not at this point anyways).

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  2. I think this is the only good Tommy & Tuppence book. Secret Adversary and Prickling are Average, Postern is awful.

    I actually like Christie’s thrillers more than many people and I consider Seven Dials to be one of her top works!

    Liked by 1 person

      • I love both The Secret of Chimneys and The Seven Dials Mystery (but I love the bright young thing trope, and Bundle Brent is perfection). I thought that The Big Four was abysmal, though, and it’s an early thriller, and I thoroughly enjoyed They Came To Baghdad, and it’s a later thriller – Victoria Jones is a hoot. Passenger to Frankfurt is one of the worst books I’ve ever read, and I’ve heard nothing good about Postern of Fate (One of the few full length Christies I haven’t read). So, I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with Christie’s thrillers.

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      • I have fairly similar opinions on those thrillers you mention though I enjoyed TCTB probably a little less. Postern of Fate is not as bad as Passenger to Frankfurt in my opinion as it does include the Beresfords after all. The Big Four is not a huge success but didn’t find it abysmal but I think I found the blending of detection and thriller tropes intriguing, a battle of the genres as I called it in my review. But yes TSDM is great!

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      • The short stories in Partners in crime are a lot of fun but I would hardly recommend them as mysteries.

        I didn’t like They came to Baghdad but I think a lot of her other thrillers like Destination unknown and Secret of Chimneys are actually quite good.

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      • Destination Unknown is one of the few that I haven’t read, along with Why Didn’t They Ask Evans. I am reluctant to read the last Christie because then I’ll really know that there aren’t anymore! Am I the only one who does stuff like this?

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      • No, Christine, you’re not, but take heart in that you’ll probably not remember every aspect of all 80 books and so will have a great time rediscovering some of them…!

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      • Six: Elephants, Postern, Curtain, Sleeping, and the short story collections PEC and MMFC — man, it has been a long and wonderful road…

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      • At least Sleeping Murder and Curtain are relatively decent titles to end on. Since you’ve made it through Passenger to Frankfurt, Elephants and Postern will probably not be that bad for you.

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      • Out of those two unread books I would say WDTAE is the better of the two. I would hate for you to end on DU. My last two books were DU and then Murder is Easy which felt a little of an anti-climax.

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  3. It has been several years since I last read N or M?. Your review makes me think it may be about time that I move it off the (somewhat) dusty shelves and back onto the TBR pile. I agree that Christie’s earlier thrillers were well worth re-reading!

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    • Interesting question, how many Christies. I can no longer tell, some were as long as 48 years ago. I gave up on T&T, and Parker Pine, after one or two of each. Pretty much everything else though, I counted 50 by the end of grade 9! I have reread quite a few too.

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      • Pricking is one I know for certain I have not read. Safest to keep it that way I think, like not reciting the nine billionth name of god …

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      • Looking through a complete listing, I see Pricking , Postern, and Pale Horse that I have not read, I think. I might have read Pale Horse. It’s on on TBR. There is probably a collection or two of stories I have not read.

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  4. Thanks for this post! I had been wondering whether to put it on the list for our Book Group, and I rather think that I will now. I agree that the 2015 series was truly awful – from script to casting – but I wonder if you have ever seen the older series with Francesca Annis? That was funny and featured some glorious clothes. I think that it is available on dvd if you are interested.

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    • Yes I have seen that series with Annis though alas it doesn’t include an adaptation of N or M. But I enjoyed their take on The Secret Adversary and Partners in Crime. I would have liked to have seen what they would have done with NorM.

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  5. I did enjoy this one, it was one of my first “unread” Christie novels when I started the blog, as I’d avoided most of the non Poirot/Marple. I love the reveal of the surprise guest at the start of the book, one of my favourite Christie moments.

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  6. An interesting fact from her autobiography. She wrote this book simultaneously with The Body In The Library, that is she worked on 2 books at the same time. The reason was that during normal times when she ran into the inevitable dry periods (writer’s block), she had other things to do. But during the long wartime nights, she found that writing 2 books was the best solution. I quote from her autobiography:
    “I had decided to write two books at once, since one of the difficulties of writing a book is that it suddenly goes stale on you. Then you have to put it by, and do other things–but I had no other things to do. I had no wish to sit and brood. I believed that if I wrote two books, and alternated the writing of them, it would keep me fresh at the task.”

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  7. Thanks for the review, as I haven’t had a good relationship with Tommy and Tuppence. My memory of the novels featuring them is dim at best, though I recently re-read ‘Secret Adversary’, and spotted the ending before it was revealed. I recall not liking ‘By the Pricking of My Thumbs’ – but have no recollection of ‘N or M’. and so should pick it up the next time I head down to the library. 🤓

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