Rating: three out of five
Year of Publication:1941
Motive for Murder: Identity
Plot: Tuppence Beresford looks gloomy as she sends off her husband Tommy to Scotland. He has an “office work. Hush-hush and all that, but not doesn’t sound thrilling .” It is the World War II in the bleak Britain. Rumour has it that German invasion is in progress and the Fifth Column movement has drawn many supporters in the country.
Tommy’s assignment is simple: find two German agents, N and M, in Sans Souci; a guest house in the South coast of England. N is a man and M is a woman –both English. Prior to the assignment, a British agent was killed when he was following a lead to the agents’ whereabouts. Before he dies he says “N and M. Song Susie.”
When Tommy arrives, a great surprise is in store. Mrs. Perenna, the proprietress, introduces him to other fellow residents. His attention is immediately drawn to Mrs. Blenkensop, who sits knitting a balaclava. She is none other than Tuppence.
Who are among them are Hitler’s ardent supporters? Is it a Major with sinister remarks and sneers towards a German refugee? A man who often makes a fuss about his health? A mother and her two-year-old daughter? A busy body of an Irish woman? The proprietress herself? Is it true that Carl Von Deinim fleeing from the Nazi prosecution? Moreover, by chance Tuppence see a Polish woman peer inside the premises vigilantly. She talks to Von Deinim and asks Tuppence some foreign names who might stay at the house.
As the surrender of Paris reaches Tommy and Tuppence, they are racing with time to unmask N and M. Or else, Britain will meet the same faith.
From the Cold War Era in my previous post (Notes on The Clocks) to the Second World War Britain at the time when the public mood hit rock bottom; German was bombing the UK cities and many lives were claimed. Furthermore, the British troop evacuation was undergoing in Dunkirk (whilst nobody had any idea at the time the mess they had been into).
It was clear then at such time a murder might have been the last thing in any readers’ mind. A little cheering up would do – not necessarily a propaganda, mind you. Matters which British media had not covered or was not allowed to cover due to their sensitive nature. Knowing Christie, she would tend to go to the core of the problem: the Nazi. Yes, readers – the organisation itself.
Here lay the beauty of telling a story – or a crime. For only in stories the characters react and behave in certain ways. Hence contrasting views about the War and the threat of Germans invasion; on the one hand people who openly expressed their admiration towards German’s efficiency and on the other personalities who defended somewhat unorganised British and its democracy. The plot related these divided opinions to the degree of penetration of the Nazi and fascism in the UK.
Furthermore, it was not so much about a conspiracy theory which interested me but the authoress’s notion concering German-Anglo alliance. In the sixteenth century during the Reformation Henry VIII clinched the opportunity to replace the Pope whereby he formed the Church of England and declared himself the supreme head on Earth. Personally the Anti-Catholicism that followed bore the same principle to the anti-Nazi prosecution in the concentration camp.
And therefore it was a little wonder a suitable nursery rhymes should accompany. “Goosey Goosey Wander” caught the mood perfectly for the hunting of two dangerous Nazi agents. The rest of the plot then followed the lines as guessing games began. But how to smell out spies? Did it require “witches” as Tommy suggested to Major Bletchley?
It was intriguing how freely Christie discussed at length about Germans, double agents, war strategies and British politics in general. Not only did she have the knack to present each topic with a degree of sensitivity but also she knew exactly which character as the bearer of certain attitude or remark. More significantly, she managed to capture various moods that made readers see the implications of the War for ordinary people from both sides.
As tensions rose and conflicts occurred, some residents began to suspect one another. Tuppence had her eyes on Mrs. Perenna whilst Tommy suggested Mrs. Sprot and Miss Minton as “M”. The kidnapping of little Betty, Mrs. Sprot’s daughter, was unprecedented. In the aftermath a woman was shot through the head and Von Deinim was arrested.
Meanwhile, Tommy was running out of time. One of the male characters realised that the former was not what he had seemed to be. One evening, he did not come back to the house after leaving Commander Haydock’s home after dinner. Tuppence straightaway knew that he had been captured. Fortunately, help was at hand; Albert, the Beresfords’ ex-manservantas was the backup. He was then deployed to track Tommy’s whereabouts.
Concerning the characters and circumstances, there was a number of similarities with the duo’s later adventure By The Pricking of My Thumb (1968). Tommy’s Aunt Ada reminded readers to Mrs. O’ Rourke, one of Sans Souci’s residents. For both women were observant, shrewd and deduced that something was not right. Nonetheless, Mrs. O’Rourke was Irish and she was not murdered like Aunt Ada (see the Most Fascinating Character). Next, Sunny Ridge was the embodiment of Sans Souci minus a serial killer in the midst. Thirdly, The House By The Canal –the painting Tuppence found in Aunt Ada’s room- had a “priest hole”; a secret room behind a wardrobe in which the elderly Tuppence was lured in by the murderer.
What fascinated me was the depth of knowledge the authoress had about the spy. I wondered if the Fifth Column movement was solely her idea. Or did it come from her circle of friends, who might have slipped her information? For she had gone too far when using “Bletchley” as a minor character’s name and Deborah, Tuppence’s daughter, worked for the Intelligence Service. The name was enough to trigger fear that Christie might have hinted about the highly confidential Enigma project at Bletchley Park. Her being under surveillance was revealed recently and it has been learnt that “Bletchley” was sheer coincidence on her part.
Of equal merit, was the conversation between Tommy and his handler Mr. Grant about the double agents was the fruit of Christie’s ingenuity? Or was it from her friends at the top?
William Boyd’s Restless has quite similar plot. A Russian refugee is recruited as a British agent and subsequently is being framed as a double agent in order to deter the US involvement in the Second World War.
Spionage aside, it was quite difficult to guess who N was. There were seven male characters plus Tommy. There was not much clues that could pinpoint X as a “N” but own surmises based on a character’s descriptions and elimination. Nor the motive as to why did he turn his back to his country. It was easier to guess “M”, particularly after the kidnap. Tuppence’s remarks and thoughts helped in this regard.
The Clocks plot helped me to realise the medium the woman agent used to conceal information nevertheless. When I remembered the agent Colin Lamb was looking for, everything fell into its place. The respective agents were associated with children and both were childless.
To sum up, N or M is a feelgood spy thriller with a clever plot. It achieves its aim to lift up people’s spirit about the War. As a crime novel, it does not satisfy hard-up readers who wish for grim murders and all the trimming.
-The tattered children’s book of Little Jack Horner
-Tommy’s accident in the bathroom of Commander Haydock’s home
-the kidnapping of Betty Sprot
-the note from Betty’s kidnapper
-Mrs. O’Rourke found a hammer lying in the drive
-Albert Batt singing if you were the only girl in the world and I was the only boy
Cast of Characters:
Albert Batt (The Beresfords’s ex-manservant)
Anthony Marsdon (Deborah’s colleague)
Betty Sprot (Mrs. Sprot’s daughter, a two-year-old girl)
Mr. and Mrs. Cayley
Carl Von Deinim (A German refugee)
Deborah and Derek Beresford (Tommy and Tuppence’s twins)
Mr. Grant (Tommy’s handler)
Commander Haydock (a retired Naval officer, resided at Smugglers’ Nest next to Sans Souci)
Mrs. O’Rourke (an Irish woman)
Mrs. Perenna (the proprietress of Sans Souci)
Miss Sheila Perenna (Mrs. Perenna’ daughter)
Miss Sophia Minton
Tommy Beresford (as Mr. Meadows)
Tuppence Beresford (as Mrs. Patricia Blenkensop)
Vanda Polonska (a Polish refugee)
The Most Fascinating Character: Mrs. O’Rourke
Christie’s description of her was the most amusing one. ‘She was rather like an ogress dimly remembered from early fairy tales. With her bulk, her deep voice, her unabashed beard and moustache, her deep twinkling eyes and the impression she gave of being more than life-size, she was indeed not unlike some childhood’s fantasy’.
It flashed through my mind the image of Princess Fiona in Shrek. Do you agree?
Mrs. O’Rourke was Irish and a wealthy woman who owned an antique shop in London – the posh Kensington, in fact. Shrewd and sharp, she had a nose of a dog (see Clues); sniffing about and found that awkward things did happen at Sans Souci. To Mrs. Blenkensop she underlined the fact that some residents did not seem what they were. Moreover, she told her that she did not believe that Mr. Meadowes was rather stupid.
Furthermore, she gave Tuppence a tip about Mrs. Perenna that directed the latter’s attention to the former in search of “M”. Nonetheless, Mrs. O’Rourke did frighten the latter once (you know why – it’s in the book).
I supposed her character set her apart from others as a level-headed person who knew when and to whom she could talk about a particular subject. Her views were far from cynical – a bit of teasing sometimes. Halfway I was afraid something would have happened to her and later I was pleased that she was not either stabbed or hit on the head.
[to Mr. Meadowes]
‘…The only other male in the place is Von Deinim, and to tell you the truth, Meadowes, I’m not easy in my mind about him.’
‘That woman [Mrs. Sprot] is always plumping that child down and expecting people to look after it…’
[to Tommy Beresford]
‘…There are two possibilities. The whole Von Deinim family may be parties to the arrangement – not improbable under the painstaking Nazi regime. Or else this is not really Carl Von Deinim but a man playing the part of Carl Von Deinim.’
‘You see, Meadowes, it’ like this. Nobody’s supposed to know it but I’m working on Intelligence MI42BX- that’s my department. Ever heard of it?’
[to Mrs. Blenkensop]
‘You’ll be thinking I’m a terrible talker. It’s true. I’m interested in all my fellow creatures, that’s why I sit in this chair as often as I can. You see who goes in and who goes out and who’s on the veranda and what goes on in the garden…’
[to Mr. Meadowes]
‘His name [her father’s] was Patrick Maguire. He- he was a follower of Casement in the last war. He was shot as a traitor! All for nothing! For an idea – he worked himself up with those other Irishmen. Why couldn’t he just stay at home quietly and mind his own business? He’s a martyr to some people and a traitor to others. I think he was just – stupid!’
‘I suppose that even a secret agent might have a child.’