Last year, moviegoers and Netflix subscribers (I count myself as both) were inundated with mid-20th century British history. Beginning with Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, followed by The Darkest Hour, which covered the same events from Churchill’s point of view (and assured its star, Gary Oldman, of an Oscar), continuing on to Season 2 of The Crown, as the royals are haunted by their own family members’ contribution to the Third Reich’s plan for global domination. It has all been fascinating stuff, and since I delight in any connection I can make within my multitude of interests, I decided to revisit – for the first time in many a year – Agatha Christie’s 1941 Tommy and Tuppence novel, N or M. And then, just because it has been sitting in my TBR pile for many a month, I decided to simultaneously tackle Words Have Wings, Norman Berrow’s 1946 mystery featuring his sleuthing couple, Fleur and Michael Revel. Today, we talk Christie, and in as near a future as I can manage, (something else just arrived by post that I simply have to read!), I’ll discuss Berrow’s version of similar events and compare the two books. Meanwhile, if any of this inspires folks to offer their own suggestions of classic murder mysteries linked to World War II, feel free. I know there are quite a few, but I’m not sure how many of them attempt to combine the insouciance of Nick and Nora Charles with the grim reality of Hitler and Company.
As a description of the writer’s life and feelings, Agatha Christie’s Autobiography is frankly maddening. Perhaps she found her process too private, or too boring, to share. She speaks a bit about Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, but she scarcely touches on Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, except to suggest that their books were a light-hearted change of pace and fun to write. Thus, you must depend on rabid fans like myself to assign patterns of meaning where perhaps there are none. Everything I write here stems from my own thoughts and guesses, so take it with as many grains of salt as you wish.
Christie wrote about the Beresfords only five times, but those five books span the author’s entire career and are as chronologically accurate as Christie was willing to get. By that I mean: unlike the error she acknowledges having committed twice in making Poirot and Marple elderly from the start – and having to keep them pretty much at the same age as long as they lived – Christie introduced us to Tommy and Tuppence in the bloom of youth (The Secret Adversary, 1922) and revisited them as bored young marrieds (the story collection Partners in Crime, gathered together in 1929), which ends with Tuppence announcing her first pregnancy. They next appeared in N or M, aged to their late 40’s (peers of Christie herself, who was now 50), with two children fully grown and both engaged in top secret war work. Twenty-eight years later, Tommy and Tuppence would appear as septuagenarian sleuths in By the Pricking of My Thumbs (1968) and rapidly aged for their final appearance in 1973’s Postern of Fate, the last novel Christie wrote.
Whatever you may think of the adventures themselves, you can’t ignore the fact that Tommy and Tuppence have a certain emotional resonance, both in the fact that we get to follow their life span and in a certain resemblance to the author herself. Like Christie’s first husband, Tommy was a returning vet at loose ends; unlike Archie, Mr. Beresford was charmingly ugly and loyal and loving to a fault. And I can imagine that there were certain qualities in Tuppence that Christie either possessed herself or wished she had an abundance of. Suffice it to say that Mrs. Beresford is the most compelling part of all these stories.
The opening of N or M is one of its strengths, both in the way Christie creates a true historical context here (something she only really did with Tommy and Tuppence until the 1940’s), and in her commentary on aging, a favorite theme that permeated all five works. The couple are frustrated that age seems to have rendered them unfit for war work in everybody’s eyes but their own. Tuppence is reduced to knitting balaclava helmets for soldiers, and Tommy is hammering on the doors of old cronies, begging for work and being politely but firmly dismissed. Indeed, most of the characters in the novel are middle-aged and chafing at the bit as the war heats up but denies service to those deemed “too old.” We know that Christie returned to dispensary work in World War II; it’s fascinating to think that the most popular mystery writer of her age – still going great guns in the 1940’s – might have found herself at loose ends much like her characters here because of an ingrained sense of duty to the war effort.
Back to the novel: in a déjà vu moment (harking back to Partners in Crime), the doorbell rings, and an emissary from the government arrives to offer the couple relief from their doldrums. Like all their stories, the central premise has to do with spies – in this case the Fifth Column, as Mr. Grant explains:
“We’re beginning to run the war as it should be run – and we can win the war – make no mistake about that – but only if we don’t lose it first. And the danger of losing it comes, not from outside – not from the might of Germany’s bombers, not from her seizure of neutral countries and fresh vantage points from which to attack – but from within. Our danger is the danger of Troy – the wooden horse within our walls. Call it the Fifth Column if you like. It is here, among us. Men and women, some of them highly placed, some of them obscure, but all believing genuinely in the Nazi aim and the Nazi creed and desiring to substitute that sternly efficient creed for the muddled easy-going liberty of our democratic institutions.” Grant leaned forward. He said, still in that same pleasant unemotional voice: “And we don’t know who they are . . . “
Being a sexist British wonk, Mr. Grant’s offer of work extends only to Tommy, and another of the joys of this book is how Tuppence uses her resolve to plunge herself into the heart of the matter despite the men’s efforts to keep her out of it. Once she inserts herself into Tommy’s assignment, Mr. Grant laughs it off with a chuckle and allows her to assist. Very kind of him!
Rooted in espionage though it may be, N or M is the only Tommy and Tuppence novel that approaches the classic whodunit. It is my favorite set-up of all their books: one of Mr. Grant’s most trusted men has been assassinated, but his dying words reveal that two of Hitler’s most top-level British agents – a man known only as N and a woman known only as M – are currently placed in or around a boarding house in Torquay called Sans Souci. Tommy and Tuppence infiltrate the place in disguise as boarders to identify and route out these traitors before they can do any real damage to the British war effort.
Thus we have a pool of real suspects (The Secret Adversary has only two, and the last two books are utter messes) for our heroes to befriend and potentially unmask. The boarders include the proprietor, a woman of dubious antecedents, and her tempestuous daughter, a couple of spinsters, the requisite boring ex-military man, a hypochondriac and his timid wife, a young mother, and a (gasp!) German refugee. The first problem with the novel is that although the characters are pleasant enough, they never rise above the most basic characterization. I am reminded of two recently read mysteries set in boarding houses: Harriet Rutland’s Knock, Murderer, Knock (1939) and Eilis Dillon’s Death at Crane’s Court (1953). In terms of mystery plots, Rutland’s novel stands head and shoulders above the other two, but both authors populated their novels with fascinating characters that leapt out of the page, while Christie’s pretty much lay there.
Under cover as two new boarders (and pretending to be stangers to each other), Tommy and Tuppence tackle each of these persons, and for nearly half the book, the women knit and gossip, the men play golf and heap curses on “those damn Krauts,” and Mr. Von Dienem, the German refugee, manages to look suspicious on every page in which he appears. I kept wondering how these people could afford to leave their London homes and pay long-term rent to live in the country and do absolutely nothing. Only Mr. Von Dienem has a job and – wouldn’t you know it! – he works at the local munitions factory, which is very very suspicious!
And that’s the problem with N or M in a nutshell: for the longest time, nothing much happens. Oh, Tuppence plays a trick with a batch of letters that reassures herself and the restless reader that somebody in Sans Souci is a bad’un. And nearly every character gets their moment of either appearing too normal to be true or of having a dark side. We are told nearly a dozen times that Mrs. O’Rourke, one of the spinsters, has a prominent moustache – I suppose we are meant to wonder if “she” could possibly be the male spy in disguise. I ask you: would Christie pull a trick like that on us? (I’m not saying.)
What sustains us largely through all of this is the context of real history in which Christie places the novel (references are made to the evacuation of Dunkirk and the fall of Paris, events that had occurred only recently in relation to the novel’s publication). We also have the deep pleasure of hanging out with Tommy and Tuppence, who are so appreciative of having something to do that they reminisce a lot about events in The Secret Adversary, a book with far more action (ludicrous though most of that rigmarole may be). They’re both too old now to run around to hidden warehouses and get conked on the head, so action gives way to lots and lots of conversation. It’s pleasant enough blather, but I have to say it gets a trifle tedious. There are no clues to ponder, no real information to go on. The government can’t even supply the couple with data on their fellow guests for fear of warning N or M through one of their colleagues who just might be placed high up in the War Office.
Thus, we latch onto Tuppence’s paranoia about this or that person being too good to be true and look forward to Tommy’s occasional secret meetings with Mr. Grant. At last, Christie dangles a mysterious stranger lurking about who is seen talking with – you guessed it! – the German immigrant. And then, at the halfway point, an alarming crime occurs at the boarding house, and the panic and alarm resulting from it culminate in a death. Personally, I think this event gives too much of the game away, but never fear: T & T seem determined to not latch onto any truths until Christie is good and ready for them to do so. I have never seen a series mystery of hers where the lead characters spend so much time guessing – and guessing wrong – for such a length of time.
At last, Tommy unmasks N, the male agent, through sheer accident, and carries us back into thriller territory. At least Tuppence, who was always the smarter one, puts two and two together, based on a vague Biblical allusion, and sees where she misjudged all the preceding events to reveal the identity of M. This puts our intrepid pair in terrible danger from the evil Nazis. Will this middle-aged couple defeat Germany’s most ruthless spies and save the nation from utter defeat?
What do you think?
I know I have railed a bit against this one, but it isn’t terrible – just B- Christie. It’s always nice to spend a day’s reading in Tommy and Tuppence’s amiable company, and even if there are few clues to latch onto, you do find yourself wanting to know who N and M are. (I think a lot of readers will figure it out early on, but those who are easily fooled by Christie’s tricks should enjoy themselves.) The recent BBC adaptation tried to erase even these pleasures by making the Beresford’s unbearable, by moving the setting from early World War II 1940’s to the Cold War 50’s, and by eliminating any sense of mystery, suspense or fun. If I were you, I’d skip it.