by Agatha Christie
Series: Tommy & Tuppence #3
Publication Date: November 1, 1941
Project: a century of women
Set during the dark days of World War II, Agatha Christie’s N or M? puts two most unlikely espionage agents, Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, on the trail of a pair of Nazi spies who have murdered Britain’s top agent.
World War II is raging, and while the RAF struggles to keep the Luftwaffe at bay, Britain faces a sinister threat from “the enemy within”—Nazis posing as ordinary citizens.
With pressure mounting, the intelligence service appoints two improbable spies, Tommy and Tuppence Beresford. Their mission: to seek out a man and a woman from among the colorful guests at Sans Souci, a seaside hotel. But this assignment is far from an easy stroll along the promenade—N and M have just murdered Britain’s finest agent and no one can be trusted...
This is the year that I will finish reading Agatha Christie, and what that means is that I have just a few left, and the ones that are left are not her best work. I long ago read And Then There Were None, along with all of the rest of the Poirot mysteries. I’ve finished Superintendent Battle and Colonel Race, and most of Marple (although I am saving Sleeping Murder for the end, because I’ve heard that it doesn’t suck).
When I started figuring out which titles I had left, I realized that I had almost all of Tommy and Tuppence Beresford. This is the third in the series, following The Secret Adversary and Partners in Crime. When we left Tommy and Tuppence, at the end of Partners in Crime, Tuppence had just announced to Tommy that she was pregnant (after ridding the world of an espionage ring). In N or M?, many years have passed, and the twins, Deborah and Derek, are both young adults.
N or M? was published in 1941, in the midst of WWII, and, at the beginning of the book, Tommy and Tuppence are feeling their age. They can’t find anyone to give them an opportunity to serve Britain in the war, and they are a bit down in the mouth about it: the secret service doesn’t want Tommy, and Tuppence has been turned down for a nursing slot. Their children, in the inimitable manner of young people, have cheerfully decided that mum and dad should shuffle off and spend the war years in a decline somewhere.
One of the best things about Tommy and Tuppence is Tommy and Tuppence. They still have their signature witty banter, and their relationship is good fun. Even after all these years, they still like each other alot, and it shows in their interactions. Occasionally, things get a bit twee with the pair, and there is an annoyingly adorable plot moppet named Betty who accidentally reveals a secret while she is babbling on with Tuppence. When a man approaches Tommy to take on a job rooting out a pair of German spies (code name N and M) without Tuppence, Tuppence is having none of it. He sneaks off to Sans Souci, a seaside boarding house where intelligence suggests the spies are operative. When he arrives there, Tuppence is sitting in the common room knitting a balaclava. Point one to Tuppence.
Christie’s espionage stories are never as good as her straight up mysteries, and this one dragged for about the first 30%. Things do pick up, though, when Betty is kidnapped, and then Tommy goes missing and Tuppence must figure out the identity of the spies with the help of one of Deborah’s friends, Anthony Marsdon, who is a young code breaker. Bring in their old retainer, Albert, and the book comes to a solid and entertaining conclusion. I figured out half of the solution, which with Christie is about as good as it gets.
If you’ve never read Christie, definitely don’t start here. If you already like Tommy and Tuppence, give this one a go – while they are slightly less effervescent in N or M? than they were all the way back in The Secret Adversary, the characters are still a lot of fun. If you’re looking for a place to start reading Christie, though, start with one of her best: And Then There Were None, Murder on the Orient Express or The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.