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Agatha Christie was born in Torquay in 1890. Her first novel, The Mysterious Affair At Styles, which introduced the now famous Hercule Poirot was published in 1920. Her other well known creation, Miss Marple, first appeared in a short story in 1927 but she also created a number of other detectives who appeared in her novels.
During her lifetime Christie wrote a number of novels, short stories, poetry & plays. Her play "The Mousetrap" holds the world record for the longest run in history as it has been performed since 1952.
Christie is estimated to have sold around 4 billion copies of her collected works, putting her second only to The Bible. She was married twice and was a Dame of the British Empire. She died on January 12th 1976.
Background to the book:
"N or M?" was published in 1941 & was the third of Agatha Christie's books to feature Tommy & Tuppence. They had first appeared in her second novel in 1922, "The Secret Adversary" before appearing again, in 1929, in "Partners In Crime". This was a collection of 15 short stories rather than a novel, making "N or M?" Tommy & Tuppence's second full length novel.
One of the nice things about "N or M?" is that the characters have grown up between "The Secret Adversary" & this book. In "The Secet Adversary" (set in 1919) we're told "their united ages would certainly not have totally 45" &, later on in the book that Tommy & Tuppence were "childhood friends". We can perhaps assume that they're meant to be 21 or 22 then.
By the time of "N or M?" Tommy & Tuppence have grown up children of their own. Tommy's age is given as 46 which doesn't really tally with the information given in the previous novel as this one is set in 1940, but that's a minor quibble.
Tommy & Tuppence Beresford are now middle aged. They have two grown up children & their intelligence work as detailed in "The Secret Adversary" is long behind them. Both feel frustrated that it's only the "young people" who are allowed to be useful in the war.
A visit from a "Mr. Grant" changes all that. He offers Tommy a job with the Ministry of Requirements but, once Tuppence has left the flat, reveals his real purpose.
The biggest danger, says Grant, is from the Fifth Column, the Enemy Within, those people who are working inside Great Britain for the Nazis. There are leaks everywhere & Grant doesn't know who he can trust. One agent, Farquhar, appeared to be getting somewhere in tracking down those working against Great Britain but he met with an "accident" which Grants suspects was actually murder.
But, (surprise, surprise!) Fraquhar managed to utter a few words ("N or M Song Susie") before he drew his last breath. Grant tells Tommy that there was a return ticket to Leahampton in Farquhar's pocket & that there's a boarding house there called Sans Soucie. He also tells Tommy that "M" & "N" are two of Hilter's most highly trusted agents. "M" is a woman & "N" is a man.
Grant is unwilling to trust anyone else in the department because he knows that there are leaks somewhere. For this reason alone, he can't risk "M" or "N" being tracked down by anyone else inside the department. However, an outsider, working unofficially is a whole different kettle of fish.
As you can imagine, Tommy jumps at the opportunity & sets off for Leahampton, telling Tuppence he's going to Scotland to work for the Ministry Of Requirements & that she can't go. But Tommy & Mr. Grant have underestimated the resourceful Tuppence as there's a "Mrs. Blenkensop" that looks very much like her when Tommy arrives at Sans Soucie!
Suspects at Sans Soucie include:-
+ Mrs Perenna & her daughter Sheila: Tuppence feels Mrs. Perenna has searched her room. Could she be "M"?
+ Carl Von Deinim: German engaged in scientific research work. Could he be "N" or could he be working for the Germans?
+ Major Bletchley: Perhaps just a little too normal?
+ Mr & Mrs Cayley: Mr Cayley seems to have a deep admiration of all things German. Could they be "M" & "N"?
+ Miss Minton: Timid woman. She couldn't be "M", could she?
+ Mrs Sprot: A bit vacant at times. But why is her daughter kidnapped by a Polish refugee? Does she know something?
+ Mrs O'Rourke: Why does Tuppence feel slighly so threatened when she's around?
Could any of that motley bunch be "M" or "N"?
All seems fine for a while but then events spiral out of control as Tommy falls in "N's" hands...........
It hard to guage what sort of impact this book must have had at the time. As I said, the book is set during 1940 & was published in 1941. The Battle Of Britain had been fought, The evacuation of Dunkirk had taken place & France had fallen. Therre were serious fears in the UK about German Fifth Columnists & large numbers of German nationals had been rounded up & interred on the Isle Of Man. When this book came out Britain stood alone on the Western Front. Japan had yet to launch it's attack on Pearl Harbour so, geographically, Britain was surrounded neutral countries & territories occupied by the Nazis. It's not hard to imagine how the population might have feared the prospect of invasion as well as the possibility of being betrayed from within.
"N or M?" taps into this mood with various characters talking about how unprepared Britain was for war, what the British should do about German refugees etc. At one point a character called Mr. Cayley tells Tuppence all about the efficiency of the German economy & predicts that the war will last for 6 years, which isn't that far off the mark when you remember the book is set in 1940. You have to wonder whether readers at the time thought that the Government might have been infiltrated by Fifth Columnists as Christie mentions.
But I digress. Christie has set an interesting little problem for Tommy & Tuppence & indeed for her readers. Our heroes have to work alone & can only use the knowledge they pick up from the inhabitants of Sans Soucie & other people in Leahampton as a means of identifying "M" and "N". There can be no help via Mr. Grant from the Intelligence in case any of the "leaks" he mentioned alert "M" and "N" that British Intelligence are trying to track them down.
As such, details about the characters vary somewhat. Tommy & Tuppence can't afford to be too nosy, to be seen to be asking too many questions about people. The backgrounds, family details, thoughts & opinions of the various characters have to be allowed to come out in the course of conversation & Tommy & Tuppence, as well as us, the readers, have to take what we can from the conversations and events that Christie details.
In a sense this makes the reader work slightly harder than they might have to in a conventional murder story when what you mainly need to decide is whether the suspect are lying.
Here, you not only need to decide whether people are lying about the scant pieces of information the characters give you, but you need to read between the lines much more than you might need to in an average Christie murder mystery.
The book is reasonably paced and there's are sufficient clues for you to work out who "M" and "N" are before they're revealed in the narrative. It's a definite improvement on "The Secret Adversary", although, obviously, slightly dated by today's standards. There's no great emotional depth to the characters, or to the book as a whole, but then that's not the main purpose of the book. Part of the reason for reading the book (aside from entertainment value) is to see whether you can spot "M" and "N" before they're revealed. The clues are all there if you look for them. Can you piece them together though?
* Paperback: 304 pages
* Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers Ltd; Masterpiece Ed edition (2 Jan 2001)
* ISBN-10: 0007111452
* ISBN-13: 978-0007111459