Friday, November 04, 2011

Agatha Christie's Change of Pace

"QuestionWhat is your Christian name?
AnswerN. or M.
QuestionWhen did you receive this name?
AnswerAt my baptism when I was dedicated to God and received into the visible Church of Christ.

Catechism from Book of Common Prayer

As long as I can remember, my parents were fans of Agatha Christie.

Between them, I'm sure they must have read every one of the 80 detective novels she wrote in her lifetime. If they didn't read them all, it wasn't because they didn't try. When I was a child, I thought nothing of finding an Agatha Christie paperback just about anywhere in the house.

To an extent, I think I inherited their fondness for the genre. I have dozens of copies of her books that I inherited from my parents — my father gave them to me after my mother died. He said he had already read them and probably wouldn't read them again. I must confess that I haven't read all of them, but I have read most of them.

I am a writer myself, and I am intrigued by the many sources from which Christie drew her inspiration. Seventy years ago this month, for example, the Book of Common Prayer was the inspiration for what many critics of the time called her best work to date.

That was saying something, given the fact that Christie had already published at least 30 books by that time.

Most of her previous books dealt with one of two main characters — Miss Marple, an elderly spinster and amateur sleuth, and Hercule Poirot, a professional (and semi–retired) detective from Belgium. And, if you ask someone today to name one of Agatha Christie's detectives, those are the names you are most likely to hear — especially Poirot's.

As I understand it, Poirot was featured in nearly half of Christie's books, and he was the central character in all the movie adaptations of Christie's books that I have ever seen. Many well–known actors — including Albert Finney, Peter Ustinov and Tony Randall — have portrayed him on the silver screen.

But not all of Christie's books focused on Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot, and N or M? was one of those exceptions.

The story was centered around an English couple, Tommy and Tuppence, who first appeared in a Christie novel nearly 20 years earlier and a collection of short stories that was published a few years after that. They showed up again in a couple of novels near the end of Christie's life, but, in 1941, they must have been all but forgotten.

If they were mostly forgotten by 1941, they couldn't have been too recognizable to Christie's readers — and not only because of their rare appearances in her books. Most of Christie's characters — like many recurring characters in other writers' books — never really seemed to age. You could read a book featuring Hercule Poirot that was written in the 1930s and then read one that was written 30 years later and there would be virtually no difference between the characters, but Tommy and Tuppence clearly went through life phases.

When they first appeared in the early 1920s, they were seen as "bright young things," former intelligence workers living by their wits in post–World War I England. By 1941, they were in middle age, not quite as impulsive, more deliberate and dealing with the realities of World War II England.

(It should be noted at this point that a story with a specific wartime setting was unusual for Christie.)

They were feeling left out of things when Tommy was approached about doing some undercover work, and Tuppence decided to join him. She didn't wait for him to invite her.

And so they embarked on a mission to find a German agent who may have been male or female.

N or M? got its name from a 16th–century catechism that asks for one's Christian (given) name. The response that is requested is "N or M," with N being a male and M being a female.

To understand the title, it helps if you know that fact. It also helps if you read the book — and it's a pretty quick read. My old paperback copy is less than 200 pages, and much of the story was told via dialogue, as so many of Christie's books were.

One of the things I liked about the book was the way it referred to events from World War I that may have been widely known in their day but seem to be largely forgotten today — at least in this country.

I've always been something of a history buff.

For example, N or M? mentioned the case of British nurse Edith Cavell, who came to the aid of anyone who needed her help during the hostilities.

She was a pioneer of modern nursing techniques in Belgium before the war. After Belgium came under German occupation, she helped hundreds escape.

The Germans arrested her in 1915, tried her, convicted her of treason and executed her. Cavell's death became an effective propaganda tool for the Allies. Stories portrayed her as a heroic and patriotic individual who said, "I can’t stop while there are lives to be saved."

If N or M? was an accurate depiction of the times, people were still discussing Cavell's role in the conflict a quarter of a century after her execution.
Mrs. Sprot had just said in her thin fluting voice:

"Where I do think the Germans made such a mistake in the last war was to shoot Nurse Cavell. It turned everybody against them."

It was then that Sheila, flinging back her head, demanded in her fierce young voice: "Why shouldn't they shoot her? She was a spy, wasn't she?"

"Oh, no, not a spy."

"She helped English people to escape — in an enemy country. That's the same thing. Why shouldn't she be shot?"

"Oh, but shooting a woman — and a nurse."

Sheila got up.

"I think the Germans were quite right," she said.

Agatha Christie
"N or M?" (1941)

In fact, nearly a century after Cavell's execution, the evidence that supported/refuted the claim that she was a spy remains ambiguous.

But that is really another story. N or M? wasn't about Cavell and World War I. It was about uncovering German agents in the early days of World War II.

I gather that the essentially spy story was somewhat welcome escapism for Britons who had already been through the Battle of Britain.

And, while the references to people like Nurse Cavell may be obscure to modern readers, they were no doubt familiar — and relevant — to readers in 1941.

Fresh death was all around them then. It may well have been refreshing to read about a death that was practically ancient history by that time.

And it may have been a refreshing change of pace for my parents, who were born long after Nurse Cavell was executed.