‘N or M?’ – Tommy and Tuppence #3 by Agatha Christie

It is 1940, less than a year into World War II, and with the British Expeditionary Force in retreat and France on the verge of collapse, the threat of a German invasion of England becoming stronger by the week, Yet Britain faces an even more sinister threat from ‘the enemy within’ – Nazis posing as ordinary citizens.

With pressure mounting, the Intelligence service appoints two unlikely spies, Tommy and Tuppence Beresford. Their mission: to seek out a man or a woman from among the colourful guests at Sans Souci, a seaside hotel. But this assignment is no stroll along the promenade. After all, N or M have just murdered Britain’s finest agent…

The first Tommy and Tuppence book, The Secret Adversary (1922) is one of my favourite Agatha Christie books. It was a fun-packed post-WWI thriller in which a young couple, who had each had an exciting war but were having difficulty getting traction in the peacetime world, are overheard playfully forming a business partnership called Young Adventurers Ltd.—”willing to do anything, go anywhere.”, are co-opted as unofficial assets for Military Intelligence and then dropped into a complex and dangerous international assignment. I had a great time watching the two young people take on the world. The novel felt fresh even though it’s now a hundred years old. It made me wish that Christie had decided to be a thriller writer rather than focusing on the often deeply irritating Poirot.

Christie published seventeen Tommy and Tuppence short stories after The Secret Adversary and published them as a collection in Partners In Crime (1929) but there were no more novels until N or M? was published in 1941.

N or M? turned out to be a lot of fun. I enjoyed seeing how Christie chose to age Tommy and Tuppence, taking into account the twenty-year gap. I preferred the older Tommy. He’s learnt to use his brain a little more but hasn’t lost his willingness to dash into danger or his ability to attract trouble the way dark trousers attract dog hair. Tuppence hadn’t changed very much. She was still the brains of the outfit and still completely indomitable. She seemed a little more self-confident and having raised her twins also seemed to have deepened her experience of life.

I loved the humour in the story. It was mostly there in little details, like calling the boarding house where the Nazi agents are thought to reside, Sans Souci and Tommy and Tuppence letting the children think their parents were having a boring war. I particularly liked the way, at the beginning of the story, Tuppence outsmarted the man from Military Intelligence who tried to keep her away from the action.

I found it interesting to get a feel for what counted as ‘normal’ conversation about the war in England in 194O. I thought it was a bit eerie that while most people told themselves the war would soon be over, the one with the greatest peacetime knowledge of Germany forecast that it would last six years. Given that she was writing in wartime, I thought Christie took some risks in the way she told her story. There were some morale-building, patriotic, ‘We’ll muddle through and win in the end’ statements, mostly from Tommy, but there were also a number of characters pitching the case for England being Germany’s natural ally against the rest of the world. There was some advocacy for the ‘intern all the foreigners for the duration‘ school of thought but there was also a lot of sympathy for the plight of refugees. There were the usual slights against the Irish but almost no negative statement about the Germans (unless you take the English Public school disdainful view that anyone who is that planned and that organised is trying too hard. I thought it worked well as a thriller too. I wish Christie hadn’t waited over twenty years to write the next one.

One risk that Christie appears not to have been aware she was taking, was in calling one of her characters Bletchley. In the story, Tuppence’s daughter is doing some very secret work that is never spelt out in detail but sounds very much like the kind of codebreaking work that was being done in secret in Bletchley Park. I wondered at first if calling a character Bletchley was humour akin to calling the worrisome and tense boarding house Sans Souci but then I thought about just how big a secret Bletchley was in 1941 when the book was published and I decided it must have been a coincidence. Another reader told me that MI5 were sufficiently alarmed by Christie’s possible cryptic reference to Bletchley Park, that they launched an investigation. You can find the details HERE

I thought N or M? worked well as a thriller. Just as in Christie’s mysteries, I started off thinking knew who the bad guys were but ended up being blindsided more than once. Christie also managed to generate some real moments of tension when either Tommy or Tuppence was in danger.

N or M? whetted my appetite for some more Tommy and Tuppence. Christie wrote two more Tommy and Tuppence novels: By The Pricking Of My Thumbs (1968) and Postern Of Fate (1973) but I’m going to start by going back to the short stories and spending time with the couple when they were still bright young things.

I listened to the audiobook version of N or M? narrated by Hugh Fraser, who did his usual sterling job. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample.

2 thoughts on “‘N or M?’ – Tommy and Tuppence #3 by Agatha Christie

  1. A great review Mike!! I too enjoyed this one a lot and also wanted to read more of the couple. I started listening to Partners in Crime last week. I love Hugh Fraser’s narration. He’s the best of the lot at Christie books.

    Liked by 1 person

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