n or m“Tommy Beresford removed his overcoat in the hall of the flat.”

Tommy and Tuppence Beresford are unique in the Christie canon as they are the only protagonists she has that age in time with the real world. When we first met them, they were in their twenties and simply old friends. They turned up again a little later, now married. As it is, the world has now changed greatly, and so have our heroes. It’s 1940, war is upon us, and with two grown up children and middle age descending unwelcomingly over their lives, the pair are once again bored. The war effort doesn’t want them, and they need something to do.

And then a Mr Grant turns up and offers Tommy a job in Scotland, involving some top secret paperwork. Once Tuppence leaves, however, Grant changes this offer – Tommy is to go undercover in the search of Fifth Columnists on the south coast. Ashamed of having to hide the truth from Tuppence, he nonetheless heads off to the hotel Sans Souci to do his sleuthing. Upon arrival, he meets the various residents which include the ditzy young mother Mrs Sprot, fearsome Irishwoman Mrs O’Roarke, German refugee Carl von Deinim, blustering old soldier Major Bletchley and Tuppence Beresford.

As it turns out, little gets past her – she heard of the plans and beat Tommy down here to join in the search. Now under their guises of Mr Meadows and Mrs Blenkensop, they must investigate all the staff and residents of the Sans Souci, any of whom could be taking secrets from the British and sharing them with the Nazis. And after Tuppence overhears a phone call in the hotel, they soon find that they may be very quickly running out of time. They must find out the true identities of the mysterious N and M.

The five Tommy and Tuppence novels are different to the Christie fare, as I’ve said before and all other readers have noted. The focus is less on the whodunnit, and more on having adventures. These are spy novels; thrillers rather than the cosy crime we expect of Marple and Poirot. This doesn’t make them any less interesting, however. There is still a mystery element, but the action is fast-paced and the tropes of adventure are present.

Tommy remains solid and stalwart, but it is Tuppence who I prefer of the two. A heroine in her forties – a rare thing indeed, the only other one I could name right now is Thursday Next – but refusing to accept that women are weaker than men. In fact, the novel is packed with strong female characters. Tuppence doesn’t falter when the call comes, indeed, doesn’t even get the call but answers anyway. She is a wonderful creation.

The story has a few odd contrivances, such as a perfectly placed bar of soap, and a bizarre moment when someone communicates in Morse code via snoring. Still, you go with it, and you want the heroes to thrive. Like many Christie books (sadly), there is a touch of racism about the thing, but in this case it is fairly justified, the characters being English people during World War Two, who are naturally unfriendly towards the Germans. This makes Carl von Deinim the prime suspect, but surely that’s too easy, isn’t it? However, the book makes an acceptance that while the Nazis are deplorable, it is not all the German people. Tuppence feels pity for those German mothers who have lost their sons at war. Still, there’s a number of comments along the lines of describing people as having Prussian faces and distinctly un-British jawlines.

This is a great, fun book which plays with your expectations and keeps you hooked until the surprising conclusion. The Beresfords return again in By The Pricking Of My Thumbs, which will undoubtedly be on this blog before too long as well.

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