N or M? by Agatha Christie

published 1941    chapter 2

‘God, these young fellows nowadays make me sick. Hot baths – coming down to breakfast at ten o’clock or later. No wonder the Germans have been putting it over on us. No stamina. Soft lot of young pups. Army’s not what it was, anyway. Coddle ’em, that’s what they do nowadays. Tuck ’em up at night with hot-water bottles. Faugh! Makes me sick!’

Tommy shook his head in melancholy fashion and Major Bletchley, thus encouraged, went on: ‘Discipline, that’s what we need. Discipline. How are we going to win the war without discipline? Do you know, sir, some of these fellows come on parade in slacks–so I’ve been told. Can’t expect to win a war that way. Slacks! My God!’ …

‘It’s all this democracy,’ said Major Bletchley gloomily. ‘You can overdo anything. In my opinion they’re over-doing the democracy business. Mixing up the officers and the men, feeding together in restaurants–Faugh!–the men don’t like it. The troops know. The troops always know.’

observations: Another historical/topical entry this week, after yesterday’s Richard III entry to mark the discovery of his bones. It was revealed this week that N or M? brought Agatha Christie under suspicion because of this character – Bletchley Park was the top-secret code-cracking centre in 1941, so was it coincidence that she had used the name? It is entirely possible that Tommy’s daughter Deborah is working there:

‘Is it coding–or code breaking? Is it like Deborah’s job? Do be careful, Tommy, people go queer doing that and can’t sleep and walk about all night groaning and repeating 978345286 or something like that and finally have nervous breakdowns and go into homes.’

-- but apparently MI5 became satisfied that Christie knew nothing of Bletchley and had picked the name by chance. Mind you, the Major sounds as though he has marked Fascist sympathies, mistrusting both democracy and slacks. 

Christie is never less than a good easy read and a sociological document – in this case a very real-sounding picture of a seaside boarding-house in wartime. And, rather sadly, there is a lot of talk about war being a gentlemanly business, and it won’t last long.

Links on the blog: Lots more Christie – click on the label or on the lists of books above. By the time this book was written in the 1990s, ‘slacks’ were the more formal option at high school, as presumably everyone else was in jeans.

The picture is from the Imperial War Museum collection – they have hundreds of studio portraits of soldiers and looking at them is a fascinating and sobering experience. We don’t know who the Major is (a first ID proved to be wrong), just that he was in the Rifles Brigade and that one of his medals seems to be from Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee.


  1. The Tommy and Tuppence books aren't really my favourite AC books although I did like them as a teenager. I like the title of this one but can't remember why it's called this.

  2. Moira - Now that's an interesting angle to take on this novel. It's amazing how sometimes authors can hit on something (that name in this case) that are perfectly innocent but don't seem so. What I like about this novel among other things is the way Tuppence insinuates herself at the boarding house. She finds out a lot by putting people at their ease. And the relationship between the Beresfords is I think especially well-drawn in this one.

  3. I am just reading a book released 2012 edited by Matthew Prichard, Agatha Christie's grandson, called "The Grand Tour" It is a compilation of letters written by Agatha back to her family when she and Archie went on the 1924 British Empire Exhibition to promote and organise said exhibition before the actual ocurrence. She and Archie kind of lucked into it and it was to be 10 months abroad to South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, Hawaii and Canada (for free). The man in charge was a Major Belcher, whom they had to travel with and she describes as a pompous ass. She relates in the book that she modeled Sir Eustace Pedler of The Man in the Brown Suit, A Tommy & Tuppence book, after Major Belcher but this Betchley charachter sounds like he has a lot of Belcher in him as well.

    1. I love Man in a Brown Suit - it was one of the first Christies I read, and has remained a favourite ever since, and I always thought Sir Eustace was a great character, and very funny and cleverly written. How interesting to find he was based on someone real...

  4. I picked up a copy of N or M? while waiting for the ferry on the way back from my parents - it was a lovely old-fashioned cover, and when the back mentioned spying, I had to have it - mainly for the cover. It's so difficult to get the really old ones nowadays! Still to read it though.

    1. It's not bad - quite different from some of her others (but with recognizable traits) - when I re-read it here in 2013 I was more impressed by it than I remembered....


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