A spy thriller by Agatha Christie: N or M? (1941)

Review by Sylvia D:

N or M? continues the story of Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, whose adventures when working  for British intelligence during the First World War are related in Christie’s The Secret Adversary (1922).   After the outbreak of the Second World War Tommy is approached by a friend of their old intelligence chief and asked to investigate possible fifth column activity.  Another British agent had left a cryptic message when he was dying: “N or M. Song Susie” and it had been deduced that “Song Susie” stands for Sans Souci, a boarding house in the sleepy seaside town of Leahampton.  It was believed that one or both of the enemy activists, one male and one female dubbed “N” and “M”, are operating out of the boarding house. Not to be outdone Tuppence, through some crafty manouevering, gets involved too. Tommy and Tuppence both become boarders and proceed in different ways to investigate the various guests staying in the house. After a series of adventures, mis-understandings, the unmasking of a German spy living in the local community and Tommy’s capture from which he ingeniously snores his way to rescue, the boarding house fifth columnist is revealed in dramatic fashion.

We are so used to thinking of Agatha Christie as a crime detective writer but it quickly becomes apparent that N or  M? is not such a work; it is a spy thriller.  And yet it has all the hallmarks of an Agatha Christie detective novel.  The only difference is that instead of trying to determine who the murderer is, the reader is trying to work out who the fifth columnists are.  There is the usual Cluedo-type collection of larger than life characters in the boarding house – the men include a Colonel blimp-type ex-army major, a wheelchair-ridden hypochondriac, a young, presumed German, refugee scientist (who, of course, immediately falls under suspicion) and the women, “a young mother, a fussy spinster, the hypochondriac’s brainless wife, and a rather fearsome-looking old Irish-woman” (p.43), not to mention the mysterious landlady and her beautiful, brooding daughter.   Christie’s strength is that with a very few words she can conjure up all these personality types whom we immediately recognise.  All of them become possible suspects.  As with other Christie novels, the reader is presented with a series of red herrings and there are well executed moments of tension whilst finally, as one would expect with Christie, it is the character you least expect who turns out to be the traitor living in the boarding-house.

N or M? is an easy and vaguely entertaining read but Christie does succeed in weaving in some contemporary commentary such as a short discussion of the thorny question of appeasement (p.63).   There is some racial stereotyping – Germans are described by one character as “Fair-haired, blue-eyed – often betrayed by the shape of the head” (p.128) which made me think of Ian Hay’s character in Carrying On who describes the German prisoners’ “shifty eyes and curiously shaped heads” (p.285).  Anpther example is where another character says: “ . . . the Irish are terribly perverse” (p.190).  I should imagine that at a difficult time for England in the Second World War when the country was under threat of invasion and there was much talk of “the enemy within”, N or M? provided enjoyable light relief for many readers.

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3 thoughts on “A spy thriller by Agatha Christie: N or M? (1941)

  1. It’s quite a long time since I read this, but I do remember enjoying it very much – despite it being a non Poirot, Marple or Tommy & Tuppence! I’m afraid a certain amount of racial stereotyping is inevitable in a lot of golden age detective stories but we just have to understand the times in which they were written.

    As for your statement “Christie’s strength is that with a very few words she can conjure up all these personality types whom we immediately recognise” I think that’s spot on! She’s often criticised by detractors who claim that there is no characterisation in her books, but I have a very strong sense of what her characters are like and I think you’ve grasped exactly how she does it – very well and very economically! Lovely review and I now want to go and read this again!

  2. Thanks Karen! I’ve just finished a 1941 novel by Warwick Deeping, and the anti-semitism and stereotyping of the French and Italians was very striking. I think Deeping was out of step with his views by 1941, but perhaps not? I’ve read wartime diaries with plenty of casual anti-semitism, and demonising the German is just par for the course.

  3. This book apparently led to Christie being suspected of a wartime security breach. One of the characters, Major Bletchley, is supposed to know a lot of wartime secrets. And since Christie was friends with Dilly Knox, top dog among the Bletchley Park codebreakers, MI5 got worried. Christie claimed, however, that she named the (unpleasant) character in annoyance at a long wartime wait on a train at Bletchley station. The story can be found on the Guardian website:
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/feb/04/agatha-christie-mi5-bletchley

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