Well, after seeing a vague comment on an online newspaper article mentioning a cleverly-placed clue in Agatha Christie’s 1941 novel “N or M?”, I was curious enough to track down a second-hand copy of it. This also reminded me of when, in 2009, I ended up reading Christie’s “And Then There Were None” after someone partially spoiled an unusual element of the ending (which made me curious enough to read the rest of the book to see if it was even possible to end a novel in this way).
Anyway, let’s take a look at “N or M?”. Although this review may contain some mild-moderate SPOILERS, I’ll avoid major ones.
I read the 2015 Harper (UK) paperback edition of “N or M?”, but I won’t include an image of the book cover here due to the presence of a WW2-related symbol. Although the book is clearly anti-fascist and the stylised cover art is meant to reference the story’s historical setting/context, I still thought that it was probably best to err on the side of caution with regard to displaying the cover.
The novel is set in early 1940. Middle-aged couple, Tommy and Tuppence Beresford are sitting around and feeling thoroughly miserable. Despite some past work for the government, they are considered to be too old for war service. But, after asking around, a military intelligence officer called Grant reluctantly offers Tommy a desk job in Scotland. However, when Tuppence is called away by a phone call, Grant tells Tommy that he’s needed for a mission of national importance.
A British agent has been murdered by German spies. His last message indicated that the spies were connected to a guesthouse in the seaside town of Leahampton called Sans Souci and there were two unidentified spies, going under the code names “N” and “M”. Given a false identity and warned not to tell his wife, Tommy sets off for Leahampton in the hope of winkling out the German spy.
Needless to say, it isn’t long before another guest shows up at the Sans Souci. Having pulled off a clever ruse and overheard Grant’s orders to Tommy, Tuppence comes up with a false identity of her own and decides to unofficially join the investigation. Even so, with everyone at the guesthouse suspicious in some way or another, the two undercover investigators have their work cut out…
One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it was surprisingly different to what I’d expected. Instead of a Poirot-like murder mystery, this novel is slightly more of a “topical” vintage spy thriller, albeit one with lots of elements from the detective genre. Interesting, although the first half of the novel reads a lot more like a detective/spy story, the second half is somewhat closer to the thriller genre than you might expect.
In terms of the novel’s detective elements, they’re the sort of thing that you’d expect to see in an Agatha Christie novel 🙂 Almost everyone is suspicious in some way or another, there are lots of subtle clues (that are explained at the end), a few red herrings, some clever twists and a solution that, whilst technically possible to guess, will seem both logical and surprising at the same time.
In terms of the novel’s thriller elements, although they’re more understated than a modern thriller novel, they still work really well. In the earlier parts of the novel, there is more of a focus on subtle suspense, secret identities, spy tricks and suspicion, with the second half of the novel having very slightly more of an adventure thriller/crime thriller like tone to it, with an emphasis on more dramatic types of suspense.
Interestingly, the novel blends these genres in a really clever way. Whilst the identity of one of the two spies is revealed in a more thriller-novel type way, the identity of the other is deduced from clues in a more detective novel-like way. Still, both genres support each other really well with, for example, the suspense about whether Tommy and Tuppence can maintain their cover and the fact that everyone around them is suspicous making the detective elements seem a bit more dramatic.
The novel’s historical context is fairly interesting too and it adds a lot of atmosphere to the story. Not only does this novel contain a surprisingly nuanced reflection of attitudes towards WW2 (which are, at times, more pessimistic than you might expect), but a scene where a character predicts that the war will last six years is eerily prescient (again, the novel was first published in 1941). Likewise, the novel also taps into the fears of a “fifth column” of German spies that seemed to have been a concern at the time.
Plus, although the novel shows that Britain was somewhat unprepared during the earlier stages of WW2, there’s a heartwarming “we’ll muddle through this” attitude to the story that was probably even more reassuring when the novel was originally published. Even more interestingly, looking on Wikipedia, Christie was actually investigated by MI5 after this novel was published since one of the characters is called “Major Bletchley”.
As for the novel’s writing, it’s really well-written. Yes, the novel’s third-person narration is – by modern standards- slightly on the formal side of things, but it is still very readable (after all, this book was mainstream popular entertainment in the 1940s) and the style really helps to add a bit of extra atmosphere to the story too.
In terms of the characters, they’re fairly well-written too. In addition to lots of witty dialogue between Tommy and Tuppence, they’re also presented as being a vaguely realistic middle-aged couple rather than expert detectives. Yes, they’re fairly intelligent, reasonably good at picking up clues and fairly courageous, but there’s a real sense of uncertainty (eg: about who the spies are, about whether they are in danger of being revealed as investigators etc..) that really helps to make them even more realistic and sympathetic characters.
The relatively large cast of characters are, as you would expect from an Agatha Christie novel, fairly realistic and complex. Almost all of the guests at the Sans Souci do or say something suspicious at some point in the story, with most of these things having logical non-spy related explanations. Likewise, the novel’s villains are – as you would expect- suitably chilling and/or menacing too.
In terms of length and pacing, this novel is fairly good. At about 243 pages in length, it never really feels bloated or over-extended. Likewise, whilst this novel is probably slightly moderately-paced by modern standards, the level of drama and suspense increases quite a bit in the second half of the novel. And, at the time that it was written, it was probably considered a more fast-paced thriller. Likewise, the novel also drip-feeds the reader clues and suspenseful moments in a way that really keeps the story compelling too.
As for how this seventy-eight year old novel has aged, it has aged really well 🙂 Yes, there are a few mildly dated moments in the story, but it is still a relatively fast-paced and compelling vintage thriller story. A lot of the novel’s subtle humour and witty dialogue still works, the characters are still compelling, the mystery is still compelling and the thriller elements are still suspenseful. Plus, as mentioned earlier, the story’s writing style is still fairly readable too (if a bit more formal than a modern novel).
All in all, this novel is a fairly interesting vintage spy/detective novel. Yes, it’s a bit different to Christie’s more famous “Poirot” stories, but it’s still compelling, atmospheric and intriguing. Plus, if you’re a fan of Sara Sheridan’s “Mirabelle Bevan” historical detective novels, then you’ll probably enjoy this story too.
If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get four and a half.