N or M?

THE BOOK   Fontana 1964  pp 192

The book I originally read has a simple Tom Adams cover: the sand evokes the seaside setting, the transmitter and ring reference the Fifth Column element and the hammer is the one used in an assault. Tom Adams’ later ‘jigsaw’ cover has pieces directly taken from the plot – I find it a bit messy.

The title is another example of excellent judgement by the author: for some reason, the more obvious ‘M or N?’ would not sound right; ‘N or M’ does.1


Early in WWII, Tommy Beresford is sent (via a roundabout route) to investigate a German Fifth Column cell based in the seaside town of Leahampton. A Nazi agent, either known by the code-name N (for a male) or M (female), is believed to be co-ordinating preparations for a German invasion of Britain from a boarding house (the Sans Souci) in the town.

When Tommy arrives at Sans Souci he is surprised to find his wife Tuppence already in residence there under an alias … 

Agatha Christie wrote this story during 1940, and unlike many of her others it is very much set in its time (the Spring of that year), with many references to the fall of France, then the Dunkirk evacuation, and, finally, a hint of the Battle of Britain that was about to come.


Agatha Christie manages to create a cast of characters at Sans Souci that appear both innocuous and threatening at the same time. By the end, therefore, it is no surprise to find that, of the twelve residents, there are two members of the IRA, three agents working on behalf of the British secret service and one Nazi agent. 

This is the second novel to feature Tommy and Tuppence and there is an element of déjà-vu – as in the previous one, The Secret Adversary, Tommy has his head bashed in and is taken prisoner – but, possibly because of the circumstances under which the story was written, the two of them are far less flippant than previously: this is no light-hearted thriller. 

The atmosphere of suspicion, unhappiness and a moaning acceptance of difficult times is well drawn and one can almost smell the dreadful cabbage that passes for rations. The residents are individually drawn, and their opinions are surprisingly diverse considering the peculiar circumstances of the time. It is tempting to read into these opinions some of the author’s own. 2


Mrs Sprot is considering taking her baby back with her to London (because ‘everyone’s going back, aren’t they?’) and is shouted down by the others:

‘What I say is one mustn’t risk anything with children. Your sweet little Betty! You’d never forgive yourself, and you know that Hitler said the Blitzkrieg on England is coming quite soon now – and quite a new kind of gas, I believe.’
Major Bletchley cut in sharply:
‘Lot of nonsense talked about gas. The fellows won’t waste their time fiddling about with gas. High explosive and incendiary bombs. That’s what was done in Spain.

Tuppence (in the role of Mrs Blenkensop) tries to listen in on a conversation between Carl von Deinem and the landlady’s daughter:

Unobtrusively she turned and again passed the two.
‘Smug, detestable English …’
The eyebrows of Mrs Blenkensop rose ever so slightly. Carl von Deinem was a refugee from Nazi persecution, given asylum and shelter by England. Neither wise nor grateful to listen assentingly to such words.

Mr Cayley proves to be remarkably prescient:

‘What’s that you’re saying?’
‘We’re saying,’ said Miss Minton, ‘that it will all be over by autumn.’
‘Nonsense,’ said Mr Cayley. ‘This war is going to last at least six years.’

As far as Britain was concerned, he is spot on: the war lasted from 1939-45. Major Bletchley (retired) takes a modern view of the refugee crisis of the time:

‘You take my word for it, this refugee business is dangerous. If I had my way I’d intern the lot of them. Safety first.’
‘A bit drastic, perhaps.’
‘Not at all. And I’ve got my suspicions of Master Carl. For one thing, he’s clearly not a Jew.’

Sheila Perenna on ‘the last refuge of a scoundrel’:

‘I hate patriotism, do you understand? All this country, country, country! Betraying your country – dying for your country – serving your country. Why should one’s country mean anything at all?’

 Tuppence in a conflict of emotion about the likely fate of a possible spy:

‘Oh, damn, damn, damn the Irish!’ thought Tuppence in a fury of mixed feelings. ‘Why have they got the power of twisting things until you don’t know where you are? If Carl von Deinem’s a spy, he deserves to be shot. I must hang on to that, not let that girl with her Irish voice bewitch me into thinking it’s the tragedy of a hero and a martyr.’

The landlady of Sans Souci snaps:

‘I’m sick of the cruelty, the unfairness of this world. I’d like to smash it and break it – and let us all start again near to the earth and without these rules and laws and the tyranny of nation over nation…’ 

Mr Grant trying to explain why people might betray their country:

‘You do not know the force of German propaganda. It appeals to something in man, some desire for lust or power. These people were prepared to betray their country not for money, but in a kind of megalomaniacal pride in what they, they themselves, were going to achieve for that country. In every land it has been the same.  It is the Cult of Lucifer – Lucifer, Son of the Morning. Pride and a desire for personal glory!’


The revelation at the end will come as a surprise to most readers, which is quite an achievement because the killer is very much hidden in plain sight. The thing that most distinguishes this story is the light it sheds on the people and the attitudes they held at a particular time in history.

This is the best of Tommy and Tuppence. It is a good flowing read, requiring no extra crimes to pad it out to the usual 192 pages, although the revelation about the ‘German refugee’ at the end is a bit unnecessary.   


Tommy and Tuppence disappeared for another quarter of a century until a comeback in By The Pricking of My Thumbs in 1968; this time it is Tuppence’s turn to be smashed on the head.

Agatha Christie returns to the idea of the ‘Cult of Lucifer’ in They Came to Baghdad, and somewhat similar sentiments are at the heart of the plot of Passenger to Frankfurt

Unlike Mrs Sprot, Christie did go back to London in 1940, after Greenway, her house in Devon, had been requisitioned to house refugees fleeing London. The house in London was indeed damaged during the Blitz, though she was not there at the time.


The BBC produced a version as part of its (now-abandoned) Partners in Crime series, with David Wallians as both executive producer and playing the part of Tommy. It bears little resemblance to the book. There is therefore room for a version which plays straight with the original and evokes the period in which it is set – between the end of the ‘Phoney War’ and the start of the Battle of Britain.


1 This title apparently (according to Wikipedia) comes from the Catechism in the Book of Common Prayer which asks,

“What is your Christian name? Answer N. or M.”  

The “N. or M.” stands for the Latin, “nomen vel nomina”, meaning “name or names”. It is an accident of typography that “nomina” came to be represented by ‘m’ – presumably it should have been ‘nn’.

2 Agatha Christie has a somewhat undeserved reputation for ‘casual racism’ in some of her writings but she often reserves her most withering and sarcastic comments for the ‘smug, detestable’ English. No matter how many sinister foreigners there are in a story, the real bastards and culprits are, as in this one, almost certain to be English (or, at a pinch, Americans).  She was, I am sure, reasonably patriotic, but, like Samuel Johnson (and Edith Cavell), would not have seen patriotism as an excuse.