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.