The Agatha Christie Challenge – N or M? (1941)

N or MIn which we encounter Tommy and Tuppence, frustrated by the fact that no one wants them to help with the war effort, until a trusted contact comes along and offers Tommy a position he can’t resist. Tuppence isn’t to know about it, but of course she finds out and accompanies him. Can they identify the Fifth Columnist working undercover in an English seaside town? Of course they can! As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to tell you whodunit – or rather, who the undercover agent is!

Common PrayerThe book bears no dedication, and, according to Christie’s autobiography, she saw it as a kind of sequel to her earlier Tommy and Tuppence novel, The Secret Adversary. N or M? was first published in the US in a condensed version in the March 1941 issue of Redbook magazine, and in the UK an abridged version was serialised in Woman’s Pictorial from April to June 1941, under the title Secret Adventure. The full book was first published in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company later in 1941, and in the UK by Collins Crime Club in November the same year. The title is taken from a catechism in the Book of Common Prayer which asks, “What is your Christian name? Answer N. or M.” I’m not sure that the Book of Common Prayer holds the key to this particular case though.

Boring babyI could remember absolutely nothing about this book, and when it came to re-reading it now, I can see why. This is the dullest, most unmemorable book I have encountered on my Agatha Christie Challenge so far. Its plot is thin, and if you’re waiting for a nice juicy murder, you’ll have a long wait. There are several tedious sequences when the reader is subjected to endless reports of the activities and meaningless gurgling of little baby Betty Sprot. True, Betty has a significance to the story as a whole, but Christie dwells on the baby talk for far too long, and I found these scenes thoroughly boring. Interestingly, Christie wrote it at the same time as she was writing The Body in the Library, which would appear the following year. I wonder if she suffered a lack of concentration or commitment as a result? It will be fascinating to re-discover whether The Body in the Library shows any such signs too.

Second World WarThere’s one thing that this book does very well, and that is to suggest to the modern reader what it must have been like to live through the early years of the Second World War; the anxieties, the paranoia, the fears, the restrictions. Christie sets the book in the spring of 1940. Speculation is rife: the current Blitzkrieg is the German’s last effort, Hitler is so deranged the war will be over by August. Characters are thought to be Nazi sympathisers; especially the German refugee who acts so mysteriously. It’s difficult to get from village to village unless you’re a local, because all the signposts have been taken down to make it difficult for German parachutists. Letters arrive in the post bearing a censor’s mark. The people who bought Smuggler’s Rest were all foreigners – they didn’t speak a word of English. “Don’t you agree with me that sounds extremely fishy?” asks Commander Haydock, illustrating the general paranoia of the time.

Bletchley_ParkIn a moment of real-life paranoia, Christie was herself investigated because she named one of the characters in the book Major Bletchley, and it was suspected that she was giving away knowledge of the secret codebreaking work underway at Bletchley Park. Christie always maintained that she chose the name after travelling through Bletchley station on the train; and she died before the nature of the work undertaken at Bletchley Park was revealed to a curious world. Did she have insider knowledge? We’ll never know.

White QueenChristie makes her presence felt in the story on a couple of occasions; when Tuppence first arrives at the guest house “Sans Souci”, and everything seems purely above board and without any suspicion, Christie makes her own observation: “To believe in Sans Souci as a headquarters of the Fifth Column needed the mental equipment of the White Queen in “Alice”.” More annoyingly, there is a scene early on when Tommy and Tuppence, both undercover at the guest house, take time out to compare notes and discuss the characters living there: “”Now,” said Tuppence. “I’ll tell you some of my ideas.” And she proceeded to do so.” But she doesn’t tell us! That’s either deceitful of Christie, withholding observations and information from the reader, or, at best, simply lazy, with her not being bothered. Either way, it irritated me; I didn’t feel that Christie was playing fair with her readers.

KnittingSo how are Tommy and Tuppence getting on? It’s been twelve years since we saw them in Partners in Crime, but somehow since then they have acquired grown-up children and have aged considerably more than twelve years; ah, the magic of fiction. Tommy is too old to be called up, much to his grievance; Tuppence too is only considered good enough to knit for the nation. That’s not how they see themselves. Their erstwhile assistant Albert is still on the scene; he’s now married and runs The Duck and Dog pub in South London.

Be like dad keep mumTommy is still rather plodding and perhaps not the brightest tool in the box, but what he lacks in finesse he makes up for in derring-do. Tuppence is still unpredictable, flighty and playful. When she realises she will have to tell lies in this particular operation, she confesses: “I don’t mind lying in the least. To be quite honest, I get a lot of artistic pleasure out of my lies.” She’s also thoughtful and more understanding than most. Despite the fact that “there’s a war on” she feels sympathy for individuals on the other side. “I hate the Germans myself. “The Germans” I say, and feel waves of loathing. But when I think of individual Germans, mothers sitting anxiously waiting for news of their sons, and boys leaving home to fight, and peasants getting in the harvest, and little shopkeepers and some of the nice kindly German people I know, I feel quite different. I know then that they are just human beings and that we’re all feeling alike.” An unpopular opinion at the time, I’ll wager.

BournemouthThere’s not a lot of interesting material for us to discuss in this book, so let’s move on to having a look at the place names to see to what extent they’re genuine, or just a figment of Christie’s imagination. The story is set in the seaside town of Leahampton, which doesn’t exist but I see from other commentators that it is widely meant to represent Bournemouth. Other nearby locations include Leatherbarrow and Yarrow, neither of which exist as towns or villages but are mentioned in road names in the Maghull/Sefton areas of Merseyside, which is curious. Tuppence’s Aunt Gracie lives in Langherne, Cornwall; again, a completely fictitious location.

dismal desmondLet’s have a look at some of the other references in the book. The wartime setting is enhanced by references to Dismal Desmond and Bonzo; Dismal Desmonds were referred to in Parker Pyne Investigates, and Bonzo was the famous cartoon dog. Tuppence gains her kindness towards others from thinking of Nurse Cavell – Edith Cavell, sentenced to death during the First World War for helping 200 Allied soldiers to escape, and whose watchword was “I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone”. Meanwhile, Sheila Perenna tells Tommy that her father was a follower of Casement in the First World War – that would be Roger Casement: poet, Irish nationalist and leader of the Easter Rising.

Sisera“So, Tuppence thought, might Joel have looked, waiting to drive the nail through the forehead of sleeping Sisera.” Who? I can do no better than to refer you to our friends at Wikipedia (so it must be true): Sisera was commander of the Canaanite army of King Jabin of Hazor, who is mentioned in Judges 4-5 of the Hebrew Bible. After being defeated by the forces of the Israelite tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali under the command of Barak and Deborah, Sisera was killed by Jael, who hammered a tent peg into his temple. Nasty.

Nine of diamondsIn that game of Bridge that almost drives Tuppence to distraction, Mrs Cayley lays down the nine of diamonds. “’Tis the Curse of Scotland that you’ve played there!” says Mrs O’Rourke. I’d never heard about the Curse of Scotland as being a nickname for the Nine of Diamonds. Even as far back as 1708, you can find this description in an old book: “Diamonds as the Ornamental Jewels of a Regnal Crown, imply no more in the above-nam’d Proverb than a mark of Royalty, for Scotland’s Kings for many Ages, were observ’d, each Ninth to be a Tyrant, who by Civil Wars, and all the fatal consequences of intestine discord, plunging the Divided Kingdom into strange Disorders, gave occasion, in the course of time, to form the Proverb.” So now you know.

Home GuardMajor Bletchley goes to see the film “The Wandering Minstrel” and Christie is at pains to tell us how he criticises its military inaccuracy. However, the only films bearing that name at that time was a comedy short and this definitely wasn’t the same film that the Major saw. And there are a few mentions of the LDV – nothing to do with vans, this was the Local Defence Volunteers that later became much better known as the Home Guard. “Remember your Dickens? Beware of widders, Sammy”, quotes Major Bletchley to a perplexed Miss Minton. I had no idea to what this referred – it’s a conversation between Pickwick Papers’ Mr Weller Snr and his son (and not a proper quotation!)

BlondelSee if you can spot the word that looks wrong: “They want people who are young and on the spot. Well, as I say, mother got a bit hipped over it all, and so she went off down to Cornwall to stay with Aunt Gracie…” Hipped? It’s actually a really strange word for a young character of the time to say. According to my OED, it means depressed or low-spirited, and is an archaic 18th century colloquialism. (Longfellow: what with his bad habits and his domestic grievances he became completely hipped.) “There is time to weep after the battle” says Mr Grant, encouragingly, to Tuppence. I can’t locate that as being a direct quotation (all these characters are misquoting things, I wonder if that was the characters’ or Christie’s laziness?) but the nearest I can find is good old Ecclesiastes Chapter 3 Verse 4, “a time to weep and a time to laugh”. I’m more sure-footed on the reference to Blondel and Berengaria; Blondel was a troubadour linked to King Richard I, or, perhaps more accurately, his queen Berengaria.

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for N or M?:

Publication Details: This takes a little research, as my copy does not bear a date, but is clearly a cheap copy with its poor quality paper and print setting. My only clue is to take the list of books by Christie that has been promotionally listed on the inside front cover, and the book with the latest publishing date in that list is They Do It With Mirrors, which was first published in 1952. Her following book, After the Funeral, was published in 1953 but that’s missing from the list. Therefore, I deduce this is either from 1952 or 1953! Published by the Crime Club as a “White Circle Pocket Novel”, the Art Deco inspired cover shows two demonic figures, one armed with a knife and one with a gun. The cover bears absolutely no resemblance to the content of the book at all! But that’s because Christie’s White Circle Pocket novels always had the same design.

How many pages until the first death: A massive 104. And even then, we see at first hand who shoots who, so there’s no element of detective whodunitry.

Funny lines out of context: Showing the importance of differentiating between an adverbial clause and an unhyphenated noun.

“Tea was the next move and hard on that came the return…”

Memorable characters: Frankly, none of the characters interested me in the slightest, I thought they were all very vacuous.

Christie the Poison expert: No references to poison made either!

Class/social issues of the time:

As mentioned earlier, the strength (if any!) of this book is its commentary on living in wartime Britain, which is interesting to the modern reader who has never lived through such days. Given the fact that it was largely seen as a battle between democracy and fascism, Major Bletchley’s observation about how the army is run is curious: “How are we gong to win the war without discipline? Do you know, sir, some of these fellows come on parade in slacks – so I’ve been told […] it’s all this democracy […] you can overdo anything. In my opinion, they’re overdoing the democracy business. Mixing up the officers and the men, feeding together in restaurants – faugh! – the men don’t like it…”

The other Christie bête-noir, that of sexism, continues to rear its ugly head. At the beginning of the book, Tommy laments that he is of no use to the war effort. Tuppence sympathises, but Tommy adds: “it’s worse for a man. Women can knit, after all – and do up parcels and help at canteens”. Talk about sexual stereotyping! Mind you, Major Bletchley is no better: “Women are all very well in their place, but not before breakfast.”

And here’s a generalisation to consider: “Albert was not given to the exercise of deep reasoning. Like most Englishmen, he felt something strongly, and proceeded to muddle around until he had, somehow or other, cleared up the mess.”

Classic denouement: No, it’s very straggly. In our search of N and M, one of them is identified with still 40 pages (over 20%) of the book still to be read. The two other revelations are more of a surprise, but I think I was so bored by the rest of the book that they didn’t impress me much.

Happy ending? Yes. Tommy and Tuppence resume their continued wedded bliss and there’s no doubt they are a devoted and affectionate old couple. And there are two other characters who will clearly be “getting it together” in the near future.

Did the story ring true? There appears to be one massive coincidence that stretches your credibility beyond a joke; but once you understand the full picture you realise it wasn’t a coincidence at all. And in fact, in many ways, this is one of the most believable Christie books. It’s dull in the same way that real life is dull. So you may well find yourself wishing it was less believable!

Overall satisfaction rating: Despite a few positive aspects, I generally did not enjoy this book at all, and if it had been the first Christie I ever picked up, I doubt I would have ever read another. I’m going to be generous and give it a 3/10.

The Body in the LibraryThanks for reading my blog of N or M? and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge is The Body in the Library and the welcome return of Miss Marple in what was at the time only her second full-length case. As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

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