21 September 2011

Review: N or M? Agatha Christie

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 372 KB
  • Print Length: 304 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 0451201132
  • Publisher: HarperCollins; Masterpiece ed edition (October 14, 2010)
    Originally published in 1941
  • Sold by: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B0046A9MQ8
  • Source: I bought it

Synopsis (from the Christie site)

This atmospheric story, set during World War Two, finds Tommy and Tuppence doing what they do best – having an adventure. These unlikely Intelligence Service spies decide to help Queen and country by tracking down two ruthless traitors.
The only clue to the traitors’ identities is a government agent's dying words that lead them to the Sans Souci boarding house, where it’ll take some extremely subtle detection work to establish which of the guests are the treacherous N and M.

Published in 1941, the novel is one of two which Christie worked on simultaneously during the Second World War whilst living alone in London.

My take

It is 1940. England is at war. Blitzkrieg is about to begin. Tommy and Tuppence are being told they are too old for active war service. Their twin offspring Derek and Deborah are of course younger and are in the Air Force and nursing respectively.

A Mr Grant turns up at the Beresford flat to offer Tommy a clerical job in the wilds of Scotland. When Tuppence is called out to assist a friend Mr Grant tells Tommy that in fact what he is offering is a spy job hunting down some Fifth Columnist Nazi spies known as N and M. The previous agent on their trail is dead, run down by a lorry. Tuppence is to be kept in ignorance of this venture.

Tuppence of course adroitly outwits these attempts to exclude her and joins Tommy in Leahampton where they both attempt to track down N and M, but at the same time both under assumed names and definitely not married. But neither are as clever as they think.

This is #3 in the Tommy and Tuppence stories (see below).

#1, THE SECRET ADVERSARY, was not published until 1922 but was set mainly in 1919, when World War I was fresh in readers' minds. As I said in my review I thought Christie was probably reflecting contemporary paranoia with Bolshevism and secret agents and conspiracies, and showed a political awareness that we don't often give Christie credit for. THE SECRET ADVERSARY was also Agatha Christie's second published novel and had many signs of an author still coming to terms with her craft.

#2 in the Tommy & Tuppence series, PARTNERS IN CRIME, published in 1929, was set mainly in 1925. Tommy now has a desk job with the British Secret Service, and Tuppence, much to her displeasure is at home, though when the Chief of British Intelligence asks them to take over the International Detective Agency, both jump at the chance of new adventures. The fifteen stories contain parodies of fictional detectives who were well-known to readers of the 1920s. In each story Tommy and Tuppence assume the mannerisms and methods of a different detective or detective team, including Sherlock Holmes. The stories are bound together with an overall theme of a rather vague Russian plot. Again Christie appears to be reflecting popular paranoia.

So World War II is the perfect opportunity for Christie to add to the Tommy & Tuppence series (and you may want to reflect whether they would have made another appearance without the war) but now Christie is a well established and successful novelist with 30 novels to her credit, so she doesn't wait for the war to end, but publishes N or M? while the issues it reflects are still topical.
Once you recognise that, you realise that Christie is reflecting a lot of contemporary thinking. It certainly must have made the average English reader look carefully at those around him. It is a very patriotic novel.

Christie introduces the idea of a "wooden horse", Fifth Columnists, people who are very attracted by Hitler's ideas, a network that has infiltrated English society and infrastructure.
    N or M, you see, is a term we have heard before. It refers to two of the most important and trusted German agents. We have come across their activities in other countries and we know just a little about them. It is their mission to organise a Fifth Column in foreign countries and to act as liaison officer between the country in question and Germany. N, we know, is a man. M is a woman. All we know about them is that these two are Hitler’s most highly trusted agents. 
    ‘But there are those for whom we’ve neither respect nor liking–and those are the traitors within our own ranks–the men who are willing to betray their country and accept office and promotion from the foreigner who has conquered it.’
    ‘We know The Day is fixed. We know, or think we know, roughly, where…(But we may be wrong there.) We’re as ready as we can be. But it’s the old story of the siege of Troy. They knew, as we know, all about the forces without. It’s the forces within we want to know about. The men in the Wooden Horse! For they are the men who can deliver up the keys of the fortress. A dozen men in high places, in command, in vital spots, by issuing conflicting orders, can throw the country into just that state of confusion necessary for the German plan to succeed. We’ve got to have inside information in time.’ 
    Our Leader does not intend to conquer this country in the sense that you all think. He aims at creating a new Britain–a Britain strong in its own power–ruled over, not by Germans, but by Englishmen. And the best type of Englishmen–Englishmen with brains and breeding and courage. A brave new world, as Shakespeare puts it.
There are some interesting little cameos too. I was very taken with little Betty Sprot, not yet 3 years old, but exploring language and relationships in a very engaging way.

I think it is a very powerful novel in which Christie pins her own colours to the mast so to speak. If there is a weak part, it is the final roundup of information, where Christie ensures that no stone is left unturned for the reader.

My rating: 4.4

Tommy & Tuppence stories
Of course I read this as part of my participation in the Agatha Christie Reading Challenge, in which I am reading the books in order of publication. This is the 31st novel, the 41st title published (including short stories)

1 comment:

Margot Kinberg said...

Kerrie - A fine review of a very good novel. I really liked this one as well, and one of the things I like about it is Tuppence Beresford's character. She's just so appealing here (not that she's not elsewhere). And like you, I was smitten with the Betty Sprots characters; such a warm bond between her and the Beresfords develops and I really liked that. Solid story of course, too. Thanks for the reminder of this one.

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