The return of Tommy and Tuppence Beresford during the chaos and uncertainty of the early days of the Second World War made perfect sense for Christie: bringing back the carefree adventurers who had tackled a post-Great War problem in The Secret Adversary, then defeated a mysterious foe in Partners in Crime, was a way to hearken back to days of youthful innocence. And what better way to carry it off than by allowing the full toll of age and years to have fallen on the couple? Rather than making the Beresfords seemingly immortal, we find the youthful pair now in their mid-40s in the second year of the war, with grown children who are both “doing their bit” for the war effort, but the elder Beresfords themselves unable to secure any war work, despite their previous connections with Intelligence.
When at last Tommy is given a job investigating a guesthouse in Leahampton which may be host to some enemy activity, Tuppence, who isn’t included in the assignment, is nevertheless first on the scene, as the widowed Mrs Blenkensop. Tommy’s brief is to determine the identities of two German spies, known only by their code letter of “N” or “M,” one being male and the other female. Yet the boarding house of Sans Souci appears to be full of almost nothing more than the usual cast of middle class English eccentrics, albeit with an Irish landlady with a shady past of her own. For that matter, the neighboring house of Smuggler’s Rest, under the command of retired Naval man Commander Haydock did in fact have a German spy in it, but he had already been rooted out, so where could the problem lie? It is up to Tommy, in the guise of inoffensive ex-soldier Meadowes, to determine who the threat is, and how to stop them. Surely, the obvious choice of the young German refugee chemist, Carl von Denim, must be the right one?
There are delightful touches in this novel, including the fondly disrespectful way in which the Beresford twins, Derek and Deborah, refer to Tommy as “Carrot Top” for his still-ginger hair, and how they patronizingly look on their parents as having been in some sort of previous adventures, but clearly being a bit past it at the time of writing. Albert, the Beresford’s factotum and office boy who spent too much time watching gangster films in the cinema, also makes a welcome reappearance, although for fans he is sadly underutilized. There are a few touches which will need footnoting for most modern readers who do not also happen to be firmly grounded in the 19th century. The notion of“penny plain and tuppence coloured” is one which would have been understood by Christie’s older readers in 1941, but might be lost on 21st century audiences (it refers to printed sheets of backdrops and figures for making a toy theatre, which were sold for one pence if they were “plain” – just the outlines – but two pence if they were printed and pre-coloured in, which was a more expensive proposition). It’s also worth looking up the nursery rhyme “Goosey goosey, gander,” if you don’t remember it from childhood, as it will play a part in the story. And if you’re wondering about Christie’s character of Major Bletchley, having thought, as I immediately did, of the code-breaking establishment at Bletchley Park, you are not alone: MI5 wondered the same thing. But in the end, their worry came to nothing, and the Enigma code was broken without interference from a popular spy novel.
N or M? was met by much popular acclaim when it appeared, and on the whole it holds up well, and is easily worth taking a long Sunday afternoon to read and enjoy. Read The Secret Adversary and Partners in Crime first, though, to get the fullest benefit. Follow it up, as I will, with the two remaining Tommy and Tuppence novels, By the Pricking of My Thumbs and Postern of Fate. 4 of 5 stars.
Alas, it falls to me to say a few words about the recent “re-envisioning” of N or M? by the BBC, starring the somewhat mis-cast David Walliams. I guess that the kindest thing that I can say is that although it mangles the story horribly, it is mercifully concluded at the end of three hours. But if you are determined to watch it, be prepared for all of those modernist touches that make it less a story by Christie, and more a story by whatever egotists at the BBC have decided that they knew better than a mere author in the first place. The bare bones of N or M? are there – just – but the tale is largely unrecognizable, and nothing can save Walliams’ wooden portrayal of Tommy Beresford. The least that he could have done would be to don a ginger wig. I would have forgiven him a lot if he had done that. As it is, the most that I can say for the six weekly installments of the new Partners in Crime is that they drove me back to re-read the books, and that the reading was by far preferable.
Originally reviewed 29 September 2015.
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