Monday, April 21, 2014

On the track of Fifth Columnists

N or M?  Agatha Christie

In discussing Agatha Christie's books, many people pick Jane Marple or Hercule Poirot as their favorite of her detectives.  I always put my vote in for Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, who appear in four of her books (and some short stories).  I realized though that it has been quite a while since I actually read any of them, and I thought I'd better see if that was still true. It was probably the lingering effects of reading Jambusters that made me take this one off the shelves.

Tommy Beresford and Prudence (Tuppence) Cowley were introduced in the 1922 book, The Secret Adversary.  It is set in 1919, when both are looking for work after service in the Great War, Tommy in the army and Tuppence as a VAD.  N or M, published in 1941, is set in the early days of the Second World War.  Tommy and Tuppence are on the sidelines this time, both desperately wanting to do something for the war effort.  Their son Derek is flying bombers in the Air Force, their daughter Deborah doing hush-hush work somewhere in the north, yet they are considered too old to serve (in their 40s, mind you), though Tuppence is kindly encouraged to knit.  The frustrations of the older generation, and the rather patronizing attitude of the younger toward their aged parents, are also familiar themes in the war-time novels of Angela Thirkell.

One evening a non-descript young man named Grant arrives at their door, ostensibly to offer Tommy a desk job in Scotland.  But Grant has really come to enlist his help tracking Fifth Columnists in Leahampton, a seaside resort on the South Coast.  (I couldn't help thinking that this is DCS Foyle's territory, and they should really be consulting him and Sgt. Milner).  The catch, for Tommy, is that he has to go alone.  Tuppence isn't even to know of his assignment.  However, they have always been partners in detection, and she proves too smart for Tommy and the mysterious Mr. Grant.

Tommy is sent to Leahampton in place of another agent, whose recent death was not an accident. Farquhar was on the track of "N" and "M," code names for the top Nazi agents in Britain, the head of a chain of traitors that reaches even into the top military and the government itself.  With the German invasion looming, Grant's agency must locate and eliminate N and M.  The dying agent's last words point to "San Souci," a guest house in Leahampton, where Tommy and Tuppence take up residence, separately, under assumed names.  They then proceed to investigate their fellow boarders, who include Carl von Deinim, a research chemist and a refugee from the Nazis; the home's owner, Mrs. Perenna, who claims to be Spanish but looks and sounds Irish, and her rebellious daughter Sheila, often seen with von Deinim.

I have read quite a few mysteries from the period, featuring spies and disguises, secret codes, last-minute rescues and breathless escapes, threatened by traitors and sabotage from within.  They must have spoken to the deep anxieties of the times, as well as providing some welcome distraction, with traitors unmasked, bombs defused, invasion plans thwarted, the country saved.  This one feels a little over-the-top now, but it's still a diverting read, and less hyper-patriotic than some I have read.  It made me want to read The Secret Adversary again, and maybe Partners in Crime too.  That's one of the things I like best about Tommy and Tuppence: their partnership.  He's more the solid, steady type, she's more energetic and impulsive, but they work well together - even if they sometimes stumble onto the solution.  They may lack something in the "little grey cells" department, and they don't yet have the experience of Miss Marple, but together they manage to work things out in the end.  And they have fun doing it!


  1. I always forget about Tommy and Tuppence! I've only read one book that featured the duo, way back when I was a teen and the only thing I remember about it is something to do with a rocking horse.
    I didn't realize that a lot of mysteries published during the war were about spies and espionage, I mean it makes sense, but I think I would have been too nervous to read about it!

  2. No one seems indifferent to T & T, do they? It's all a bit love or loathe. I love N&M - such a great plotting and full of surprises and when I re-read it recently I noticed that sense of how close people thought an invasion could be, which really adds to the tension.

  3. Anbolyn, I can't remember a rocking horse - now I have to re-read :) I think these kinds of stories must have been about managing anxiety - maybe partly by showing ordinary people defeating them.

    vicki, I've found a lot of people don't know about T&T (or Parker Pyne), even though the T&T stories have been filmed. I can't imagine the waiting, knowing that only the Channel stood between them & the Blitzkrieg.

  4. I thought I had read most or at least a lot of Agatha Christie, but I've never read an Tommy and Tuppence mysteries, so I better get cracking. They sound like a great pair, and The Secret Adversary sounds like it wouldn't be a stretch to include it in WWI-related reading.

    > He's more the solid, steady type, she's more energetic and impulsive

    Sounds like my parents!

  5. I read these when I was in my teens (i.e several decades ago!) and I've not been back to them either. Like you, I think I should do something about this. I read an awful lot of modern crime fiction and it does no harm to go back occasionally and explore its roots.

  6. I vaguely recall not liking Tommy and Tuppence when I was a teenager, but I should probably revisit them. Would you recommend starting with this one, or with one of their earlier mysteries?

  7. Jane, I think The Secret Adversary would definitely count - the first chapter actually takes place during the war, before skipping ahead to peace-time.

    Alex, I find myself reading (and re-reading) more of the older stories. I have Patricia Wentworth to try next - I don't know how I missed her books.

    Jenny, they aren't a proper series with character development over time and so on, so you could probably start with any of them. But the first, The Secret Adversary, is fun (as least as I remember it).


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!