N or M? by Agatha Christie

December 21, 2011 at 11:34 (Book Reviews, Children's Books, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Mystery) (, , , , )


Agatha Christie’s enormous library of mystery stories has left the world with several enduring classics. N or M? is not necessarily considered one of them, and its protagonists, Tommy and Tuppence, generally take back seat to her more famous detectives, Poirot and Miss Marple. Despite being one of the less-celebrated of her mysteries, this is undoubtedly one of the best.

There is something alluringly vulnerable about the middle-aged detective duo that is never found in Poirot; nor even in the clairvoyancy of the unflappable Miss Marple or the confidence of Superintendent Battle. They’re the heroes, and obviously heroes in books like this don’t die…but N or M? is introduced with such rare violence that it is very easy to believe that this is the ageing pair’s final puzzle. Most of Agatha Christie’s books have some kind of urgency or tension to them, but usually because a new victim is in danger, not necessarily the detective himself. Contrasted between the couple’s frank discussions about the dangers of their job, their forced optimism and their touching affection for each other, it is very easy for them to win a reader’s heart.

“Suggestive words? Yes, but capable of any number of harmless interpretations.
Unobtrusively she turned and again passed the two. Again words floated to her.
‘Smug, detestable English…'”

-N or M?

Besides the ominous feel of the book, this is a skillful mating of a wartime thriller in all its counter-espionage glory with a good old classic detective novel. There are aspects of the story that are rather easy to winkle out, and parts that demonstrate Christie’s genius: in other words, the mystery is there to be solved by any casual reader, but if a casual reader expects to figure out every twist to come, then he will be sorely disappointed.

The quiet seaside town (that might be Lyme Regis, or 1940s Newquay) is sketched immaculately, and the cast of characters ranges from the utterly believable to the endearingly caricatured to the implausibly colourful. In short, just what one ought to expect from Agatha Christie at her prime. This book should at least rank among her best works, and is a pleasure and a tense and thrilling mystery to read.

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