Three Grand Dames of Mystery: “N or M?”

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N or M?We last saw Tommy and Tuppence in 1929’s Partners in Crime, which ended with the announcement that Tuppence was ready to enter their biggest adventure yet, having a baby. Now, in 1941’s N or M?, the duo faces a much more serious adventure than before in serving their country by seeking out a spy.

The Second World War is just beginning to gain momentum, and both Tommy and Tuppence keep getting turned down for any forms of war work in the basis that they are too old, though their twins have no trouble getting work. Then, one evening Mr. Grant, a friend of the “Mr. Carter” of the first two books in the series, comes to visit Tommy but seems to merely linger until Tuppence gets a phone call from a friend who has just fallen and needs Tuppence to help her. After hearing the door slam, Mr. Grant opens up to Tommy that he has a job for him, but for only Tommy. The intelligence agency has been infiltrated by people supporting Hitler, the so-called “Fifth Column,” and with fears that the enemy may invade any time, he needs to identify the “enemy within.” The problem is that he can’t use his usual intelligence services because he doesn’t know whom to trust, so he wants to bring in Tommy as the “irregular” force recommended by Mr. Carter. He proposes to send Tommy to Sans Souci, a hotel where he suspects the enemy may be. Intercepts showed that Hitler ordered N or M to go to England, N being his top male spy and M being the top female spy. So Tommy’s job is to locate N or M before it is too late.

After a few days of training and getting his complete backstory sorted, Tommy, under the guise of Mr. Meadows, arrives at Sans Souci ready to start his job. His hostess, Mrs. Perenna [forgive me if I am misspelling her name. I couldn’t find it spelled out online.], introduces him to all the other paying guests there, and as she goes around the room and gets to the last woman, Mrs. Blankensop raises her head only to reveal Tuppence! Our heroine has tricked Mr. Grant by spying on the spy and beat Tommy to San Souci, complete with an elaborate backstory only Tuppence might come up with. Together the pair work together to flush out the enemy.

This book is one of my very favorite Agatha Christie novels, which is saying a lot given the high quality of her writing. It contains creative characters, a curious mystery, and an adventurous spy story. In addition, Tuppence shines in her clever and rather unique thought processes, which help her save the day. Christie throws in all sorts of red herrings, making us think of first one and then another character as the enemy. I also loved young Betty Sprat, the 2-year-old daughter of one of the guests at Sans Souci, whose prattling and speech develop over time and seem very realistic. The details of the book become more and more absorbing, making me return to this book numerous times over the years.

Out of the 12 books published by Christie during World War II, this is the only one that actually takes place during the war. In addition, she wrote Curtain, Poirot’s last case, and Sleeping Murder, the last Miss Marple book published posthumously, both of which she locked away in a vault as an inheritance for her husband and daughter in case she was killed in the Blitz. Christie wrote a number of books that dealt with the aftermath of the war, but this is the only one to take place during the war itself. I believe that the other books written during the war dealt with the England of before the war to raise her readers’ morale and remind them of the England they were fighting for. But this book serves as a fight song, so to speak, as a means of raising morale. It references the rescue of all the Allied soldiers at Dunkirk as taking place during the timing of the book, which was published a year after the battle.

One detail that I find humorous is that this book got Agatha Christie investigated by MI-5, the intelligence agency of England. One of her characters, a retired military man with strong opinions about the weakness of the younger generation, is named Major Bletchley. Our readers will likely recognize Bletchley Park as the location of the code-breaking program, which was of the highest clearance. Especially since the Beresfords’ daughter Deborah does hush-hush code-breaking for the war effort, this makes the name Bletchley even more suspicious. Further, Christie lived in the same building as the Soviets, adding to the government’s suspicion of the author.

I learned another interesting detail about the title of the book N or M? from Wikipedia. The Book of Common Prayer has a catechism question, “What is your Christian name? Answer N. or M.” For those not familiar with the catechism, it involves biblical questions with rote answers to teach lessons about the Christian faith. The answer here refers to the Latin term “nomen vel nomina,” which means name or names. The M in the catechism answer comes from a typo. But the title of the book thus means “name or names,” referring to the mystery of the identity of the spies.

The version of the audiobook I have is narrated by my favorite British narrator, Hugh Fraser. I first listened to this book about 10 years ago with a different narrator and enjoyed it, but Fraser does such a fantastic job of making this book come to life that he makes the book even more effective.

I highly recommend N or M? to a wide variety of readers. It will appeal to those who like mysteries as well as to adventure fans. I have listened to this at least a dozen times and always have a lot of fun with it. It is so cleverly written, with so much intrigue. I give this book five stars!

To purchase this book for yourself, click here on Amazon.

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