Thu 21 Jun 2007
AGATHA CHRISTIE – N or M?
Dell 187, reprint paperback: mapback edition; no date stated, but generally accepted as 1947. Hardcover editions: Collins Crime Club (UK), 1941; Dodd, Mead (US), 1941.
I will not be so foolhardy as to list all of the editions that this book has been published in, nor will I supply more than the front and back cover of this particular mapback edition, especially since the jackets of the respective hardcover editions are so rather plain and unexciting.
But speaking of mapbacks, what I just realized now, strangely enough, is that not once while reading N or M? did I refer to the back cover. Not until getting an image ready for uploading did I even think of it. And so, looking it just now, I find it utterly remarkable that while I all of the geographical details of the small seaside resort town of Leahampton essentially wrong in my mind, the overall picture in my head was exactly right. (And of course who is there to say that the artist who drew the map had the details right?)
This is a Tuppence and Tommy (Beresford) book, and if you were to check the date that the book was published (1941), you might immediately gather that this wartime book had something to do with the war, and indeed it does. (It is my impression that relatively few murder mysteries published during the war ever mentioned the war, but this one does, and directly so. Other handedly, my impression could be totally false. It is a subject worthy of further investigation.)
I have not read the earlier books in the Tuppence and Tommy series in quite some time, so I do not recall in which one of them the twosome were secret agents in World War I, but when this book begins, they are beginning to feel their age, not to mention the pain of their rejection, as sitting on the sidelines is not their idea of how to spend the time they find free on their hands, nor in any way how to make the best use of their abilities.
A small pause here while I investigate and come back with a short list of the books in which the pair of intrepid adventurers appeared:
The Secret Adversary, 1922. [This must be the World War I adventure .]
Partners in Crime, 1929. [A story collection disguised as a novel.]
N or M?, 1941.
By the Pricking of My Thumbs, 1968.
Postern of Fate, 1973.
That’s quite a range of dates, and the gap between the 3rd and 4th is a huge one, 27 years, but I don’t imagine that it is anywhere near a record — the longest break between appearance of series characters. (A question like this is something else I wish I had more time to look into.)
But back to the story. Luckily enough Tommy is offered a job by the British equivalent of Homeland Security, so hush-hush, he is advised, that he should not even tell Tuppence. Who, of course, has other ideas, and thus indeed there is a story.
It seems that a pair of spies for the Germans, N (a man) and M (a woman) are located in the aforementioned seaside resort town of Leahampton, and in particular they may even be living there in a private hotel called Sans Souci. An amateur is precisely what is required, Tommy is told, as a professional would be spotted right away.
During wartime towns like Leahampton would be populated by (as related on page 14): “old ladies, old colonels, unimpeachable spinsters, dubious customers, fishy customers, a foreigner or two. In fact, a mixed bag.” And the two spies, Tommy again is advised, are among them.
Now if there are people Agatha Christie could write about more capably than “old ladies, old colonels, unimpeachable spinsters, dubious customers, fishy customers, a foreigner or two,” I don’t know who they would be, nor do I know of any other mystery writer could outdo her in this regard, either.
What with the number of people staying on at Sans Souci to describe and make distinguishable, it might have been a Herculean task to succeed in doing so, but what Agatha Christie had was a knack of instant characterization for the inhabitants of her stories, and so it is here. And there is more. Christie is often put down for mysteries that focus more on the plots than they do on the writing of them, but such critics are generally wrong, as this book amply demonstrates. It is so smoothly written that 50 pages flash by in what seems to be an instant — gently humorous at times, sometimes (later on) deadly serious, and with a sense that something suspicious is always going on.
There are a good many suspects at hand, in other words, in an oddly arranged version of the closed manor house type of mystery, but with little of substance to back up this statement, I do not believe that spies and espionage were Ms. Christie’s strongest points. Or in other words, where the book fails, if indeed it does, is in the plotting, which seems forced and unconvincing, concluding with some derring-do and remarkable rescuing that seems entirely fortuitous.
And that the bring-down-the-curtain revelation at the end was one that I was suspicious about myself several pages earlier — “What’s going on here?” I wondered to myself (you’ll have to take my word for it) — which only goes to reinforce the statement I made in the preceding paragraph. Entirely enjoyable then, is my conclusion, but weakest precisely (and curiously) where you’d expect an Agatha Christie novel not to be.