Covert Operations, Espionage and Intelligence in Agatha Christie’s Second World War Novels
Info: 9643 words (39 pages) Dissertation
Published: 2nd Mar 2022
Tagged: English Literature
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 – The Secret Service: Infiltration and Defence
Chapter 2 – The Spy: Agents and Outsiders
Chapter 3 – The Intelligence: Decoding the Data
In February 2013, information released by MI5 revealed that Agatha Christie was investigated by intelligence chiefs during the Second World War. Their suspicions, it was revealed, were provoked by the name choice of the character Major Bletchley in her wartime novel N or M? (1941), prompting concerns that Christie possessed inside information about the code breaking that was occurring at Bletchley Park (Norton-Taylor). MI5 would perhaps also have noted that the daughter of the protagonists, Deborah Beresford, is employed in secret work as a code-breaker, to which there are frequent references: “is it coding – or code-breaking? Is it like Deborah’s job?” (N or M? 15). The fact that she was good friends with leading cryptanalyst Dilwyn ‘Dilly’ Knox, who had recently experienced a breakthrough in deciphering the German Enigma code, only increased fears that Christie had successfully infiltrated the most clandestine of wartime operations.
Intriguing intelligence such as the above explains why journalists and biographers are tireless in uncovering links between the mysteries in Christie’s novels and her private life. As recently as 2014, David Burke’s study of the of the Lawn Road flats in Belsize Park where Christie wrote N or M? revealed that several of her immediate neighbours were Soviet spies (Burke 4). While attention-grabbing, these biographical links are, however, tenuous; it is unlikely that Christie knew much, if anything, about the crucial work that was taking place at Bletchley Park, or gained information by eavesdropping. Instead, the claims merely serve to epitomise how, historically, writers have tended to focus extensively on the dramatic potential of the author’s life rather than her texts. Having said this, the themes of surveillance, espionage and decoding are present in several of her wartime novels, notably And Then There Were None (1939), One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (1940) and N or M? (1941). The fact that she wrote with such urgency and focus on these themes in such a short period of time undoubtedly indicates a certain level of personal fascination with covert activities shortly before and during the Second World War. Until now, most commentators on Christie have either made contentious biographical links such as the above, or altogether ignored the significance of espionage in her novels.
It seems that Christie so dominates the genre of Golden Age detective fiction that study of her as a ‘political’ writer with noteworthy views on current domestic affairs has been neglected. In particular, her literary references to the war she lived through are often dismissed as non-existent or incidental. As a celebration of the centenary of her first crime novel in 2016, the well-established detective periodical Clues: A Journal of Detection published a special Agatha Christie edition, in which various essays explore the possibility of Miss Marple as a “Christian sleuth” (Betz 150) and the merits of the country house as a setting (Barnett 63), yet there is a notable absence of critical engagement with the fact that she lived and wrote through arguably the most intensely political and all-consuming conflict that Britain has ever seen. Indeed, Christie is rarely discussed among studies of more overtly political thriller writers like John Buchan, Erskine Childers, Graham Greene and Eric Ambler. Instead, she is fated to be indissolubly linked with the other ‘Queens of Crime’, Dorothy L. Sayers, Ngaio Marsh and Margery Allingham.
Critical focus on Christie’s major role in developing Golden Age detective fiction can be limiting and dismissive of her reasons for writing about crime-solving at a time of utmost fear of enemy infiltration. The challenge of analysing a selection of her Second World War novels opens a neglected seam of research, illuminating how she used what John G. Cawelti refers to as the “Age of Clandestinity” (2) to explore public anxieties and her own personal fascination with surveillance, espionage, and the activities of the British Secret Service.
Of the three texts examined in this work, And Then There Were None, One, Two, Buckle My Shoe, and N or M?, only the latter is explicitly a spy story, in which the protagonists fulfil the role of the agent. While not all the novels contain characters directly engaged in espionage, the selection provides a broad sense of attitudes towards the culture of secrecy and wartime intelligence. With their acute observations of contemporary society, they are far removed from the traditional country house whodunits that Christie is best known for. They all depict clandestine activities, the withholding or deliberate supression of information and webs of secrecy. These themes involve modern bureaucratic institutions such as the government and the police, where enemy infiltration occurs at the highest echelons of society. For this reason, although novels such as Evil under the Sun (1941) and The Moving Finger (1942) were also written during the Second World War period, they were unsuitable for this project, as their primary concerns were domestic and familial. Rather, the novels chosen were those that contributed to discussions of the war effort in a wider societal sense, looking at emerging problems of government distrust and disillusionment heightened by the war.
Although the novels under investigation are primarily detective stories, they are unusual their reflection of the political and social unrest of the first years of the war. They allow Christie to examine the danger of the ‘enemy within’ while commenting critically on current attitudes in government and the population at large. She is unsparing in her criticism, giving the reader a license to question national security and government bureaucracy as they know it. It may not be too much to claim that, as a hugely popular writer, she sought to promote common sense and measured conduct in a nation under threat of invasion.
1 Sept, Germany invades Poland
3 Sept, Britain and France declare war
9 Nov, And Then There Were None published as Ten Little Niggers
10 May, Churchill becomes Prime Minister
26 May, Dunkirk evacuation begins (N or M? 5)
22 June, Fall of France (N or M? 120)
7 Sept, London Blitz begins
15 Sept, Hitler postpones invasion of Britain (N or M? 41)
4 Nov, One Two, Buckle My Shoe published
24 Nov, N or M? published
1. The Secret Service: Infiltration and Defence
In the decades since D-Day in 1944, historians have pieced together an extraordinary picture of the covert operations undertaken by British Intelligence organisations during the Second World War. Sometimes referred to as the “shadow war” (West xix) of secret agencies, the work of British Intelligence in this period was characterised by the cryptoanalytic efforts at Bletchley Park, and MI5’s ‘double-cross’ system of feeding the Germans false information, both of which have since been described as endeavours of “labyrinthine complexity” (West xxv). The inherent drama of covert activities which are legitimised by official channels arguably lends itself to fiction, and has indeed been explored both directly and indirectly in the novels of Agatha Christie. In One, Two, Buckle my Shoe (1940), N or M? (1941) and And Then There Were None (1939), British law enforcement agencies are depicted protecting the nation from enemies both foreign and domestic, shaping the way we recognise and understand covert activities, intelligence interception and the management of agent networks today (West xxiv). The contribution of the British Secret Service to the war effort gave it social and national significance, while allowing it to retain a high degree of independence from governmental bureaucracy and therefore distinguish itself from the British police force. Christie dramatises the nervousness verging on paranoia from the prospect of infiltration by foreign spies and so-called fifth columnists, allowing her to examine a microcosm of British culture in a period of national and international crisis.
Christie presents an intricate picture of the shift from amateur espionage to institutionalised wartime intelligence-gathering. In N or M?, Tommy and Tuppence function as agents on behalf of the British Secret Service, having been recommended by Lord Easthampton, Chief of Intelligence. Despite the remote, seemingly unimportant South coast location of the private hotel Sans Souci, Christie creates the sense that their mission is crucial to the systemised war effort. The depiction of a fully functioning Secret Service in Christie’s espionage fiction coincides with an increasing sense of national insecurity, in which the offenders were virtually undetectable. In N or M?, the threat of a ‘Fifth column’ of Nazi sympathisers preparing the ground for a German invasion speaks to British anxieties about its susceptibility to invasion; when Tommy is asked “you’ve read in the newspapers of the Fifth Column?” (10), he confirms he is aware of “the enemy within” (10). Media coverage of spy networks discovered in Britain at the time was explosive; in 1937, the Daily Mail began to publish ‘spy lists’ of people discovered to be involved in espionage activity, threatening that death was “the end that any German may expect who allows himself to be caught in the web spun by Secret Service agents” (“German Spy List”). International spy networks such as the Red-Nazi spy plot in 1940 dominated the headlines, threatening that propaganda by powerful organisations “may have spread to Britain” (“Red-Nazi Spy Plot”) to sap the determination of the empire. Scaremongering in the media instigated a widespread fear of an invisible, insidious threat that had somehow managed to become entrenched in the heart of British society.
This strategy is one of many attacks staged by the German’s “well-planned war machine” (N or M? 10), whose industrial and technological forces suffocated the British war effort from within. Christie depicts what critics have previously referred to as an example of Ulrich Beck’s “risk society” (Wang 23), in which political insecurities are both caused and combatted by socially destructive systemised methods. As the risk itself is “the wooden horse within our walls” (N or M? 11), the typically external threat of invasion is, in this instance, internalised by British Intelligence organisations. The threat of totalitarian ideology on the values of liberal democracy provoked a change in the way the Secret Service measured security internally, causing modern strategy to replace warfare “in a means-end rational context” (Rasmussen 1). The strategy isolated the Secret Service, causing the public to become alienated from the society in which they exist. It is for this reason that the sense of constant societal risk Christie produces allows the power of the spy to become compelling.
Fear of a threat that is simultaneously both internal and external raises questions regarding government credibility. In Christie’s wartime novels, the targets of covert operations are more often respectable members of British institutions than foreign agents, in accordance with S.S. Van Dine’s seventeenth rule of detective fiction that the most fascinating crimes are those committed by amateur rather than professional criminals (3). In One, Two, Buckle my Shoe, Christie emphasises that Alistair Blunt, the financial genius who has maintained British solvency, has avoided detection for a triple murder because he is “normal” (10), “nondescript” (14), and “essentially British” (10). Similarly, in And Then There Were None, the culprit is revealed to be Judge Wargrave; a supposedly prominent public figure of integrity and “a man well used to weighing humanity in the balance” (126). Blunt regards his importance to the government as justification for killing people, while Wargrave metes out his own justice to people the law has failed to convict. They are dangerous because they convince themselves that they are above the law, and in a position of trust which paradoxically allows them to remain free from public scrutiny.
The fear of infiltration led by eminent figures of authority is perhaps at its most heightened in N or M?, in which the list of those pledged to assist in a German invasion includes an Air Vice-Marshal, a Cabinet Minister and members of Volunteer Defence Organisations (183-4). Christie constructs a complex network of defectors, traitors and saboteurs who have successfully infiltrated government institutions in a time of national and international crisis. She dismisses the typically xenophobic, closed-minded threat that critic David Seed attributes to “violation by outside agencies” (115), and instead makes a similar interpretation to Michael Denning, that attitudes to espionage within the government itself were becoming “increasingly insular, even paranoid… stressing vigilance and protection against invasion” (41). At the time, threats of pro-Nazi fifth column organisations that “hope to see London bombed” (Anderson) were accused of “whispering treachery” (Anderson) within all levels of government bureaucracy. The result is a Secret Service which is introspective and preoccupied with its own condition, causing its needs and methods to become increasingly subterranean in order to deal with such domestic threats.
Indeed, the complexity of the Secret Service is a contrast to the increasingly irrelevant role of the police; an institution which Christie depicts as static, purposeless and corrupt. In And Then There Were None, the unrealistic cover story of the aggressive and belligerent ex-CID officer William Blore is mocked when his disguise is uncovered almost immediately (49), leaving him defensive and verging on recklessness: “like a wild boar waiting to charge” (191). Despite his being a figure of public authority, the crime of which he is accused is incited by private motivations of achieving promotion at work (And Then There Were None 193). Blore uses his position of influence for unethical means, undermining the representation of the policeman figure as a national symbol of British security and democracy. The web of corruption is epitomised by Judge Wargrave’s statement that “the police, as servants of the law, must be of a high order of integrity” (And Then There Were None 241), regardless of the fact that he himself confesses to enforcing justice through serial murder. The Civil Service is therefore portrayed as morally unstable, transforming the role of the Secret Service into one that protects British ideals of democracy and honesty as much as British individuals. Indeed, in One, Two, Buckle My Shoe, Mr Barnes, recently retired from the Home Office, approves of the conservative British reluctance to “smash our democratic government and try new-fangled experiments” (49), which is why the unassuming, dependable Alistair Blunt is crucial to stability. The importance of maintaining the illusion of order to the public therefore outweighs the need to recruit individuals with progressive ideas.
Christie suggests that mere patriotism is insufficient as a justification for covert operations. In N or M?, a conversation about Christian martyr and nurse Edith Cavell leads Tommy into a heated debate with Sheila Perenna on the question “why should one’s country mean anything at all?” (49). There seems to be a general consensus regarding the failure of patriotism to bring about stability, as well as doubt that national security is synonymous with peace and justice. The inclusion of Cavell’s epitaph that “patriotism is not enough… I must have no hatred in my heart” [original italics] (N or M? 51) removes focus from the war effort and acts as a historical reminder of how espionage and counter-espionage are means to an end of social justice.
Christie’s commentary on Cavell is a direct response to wartime questions of nationalism, refuting the stereotype of her isolationism. Therefore, it seems that patriotism is intertwined with negative connotations of injustice that stem from the First World War. Christie’s younger characters are ridiculed for wrongly dismissing the relevance of history to the present; in One, Two, Buckle my Shoe (originally named The Patriotic Murders), Jane Olivera argues that “one mustn’t look at history” (75), reflecting the ongoing conflict between striving for progress and maintaining “Things as They Are” (50). Significantly, the Secret Service transgresses what David Seed calls “official history” (117) by setting up tensions between its public reputation and its clandestine activities. Christie allows access to this unofficial history through her fiction, suggesting through the voices of her characters that truth and purpose is more likely to be found in literature, history and culture than in spontaneous displays of patriotism.
Therefore, Christie’s exploration of the “attitudes and vanities” (Seed 117) of the Secret Service aid her in its depiction as a microcosm of the British condition. Rather than explicit portrayals of the individuals who make up the Secret Service, Christie gives fleeting impressions of a complex hierarchical structure in which no single individual is in possession of complete, comprehensive knowledge of the institution’s activities. Rather than on the organisation itself, focus is placed on the overlapping movement of the people within it, reinforcing historian Petra Rau’s claim that the most remarkable outcome of the Second World War was “how the cultural memory of the war has overwritten the military narrative with a civilian one” (10). In N or M?, secret agent Mr Grant, known to the reader as merely “the fisherman” (39), filters important clues and pieces of rationale into the narrative. Similarly, the Chief of Intelligence, who is absent in the novel, uses other characters as vehicles for information and is referred to as both Lord Easthampton and Mr Carter; his “nom de guerre” (N or M? 8). Focus is on the information itself, the message rather than the messenger, allowing the identities of Secret Service agents to remain elusive. This is facilitated partly by allowing cultural homogeneity and heterogeneity to exist simultaneously in covert operations, as critic Christopher Grey argues occurred during the code breaking at Bletchley Park. Like Grey’s analysis of the structure systemised intelligence-gathering, Christie’s spies overlap and reinforce each other, representing “a set of cultural resources and possibilities” (Grey 147). Therefore, rather than depicting intelligence organisations in their totality, Christie shows that they are fluid ideological networks that exist in, and are produced by, a culture of secrecy.
It can therefore be argued that Christie represents the institutionalised Secret Service as making an indispensable contribution to the British war effort. As well as an organisation with the ability to hold the government to account and investigate the competence of its own forces, Christie demonstrates its ability to transgress legal and ethical methods which makes its methods more ruthless and effective. Blind patriotism is portrayed as counterproductive in a climate shaped by changes in the nature of the enemy threat and the reality that individuals have differing political agendas. Instead, Christie seems to advocate a government that is introspective and self-critical, unafraid to question the credibility of the individuals who run it. For this reason, her novels display a fascination with the ability of the Secret Service to transgress the legal and ethical abilities of other government organisations. The web of individuals anchored by British intelligence organisations reveals a complex structure of information-sharing. Christie provides access to systemised intelligence-gathering that transgresses official methods of communication, creating the underlying sense that her plot is “not any more fantastic than the real thing” [original italics] (One, Two, Buckle My Shoe 52).
2. The Spy: Agents and Outsiders
Above all else, Agatha Christie is the supreme writer of the whodunit novel. While she may have characterised N or M? as a spy story in her autobiography (An Autobiography 489), it also works well within her classic formula of a puzzle story with a closed circle of suspects. She sets out to challenge her readers to examine the characters and deduce the culprit, so it follows that almost everyone comes under suspicion. The other novels under consideration fit the classic whodunit form, in which everyone is a potential killer with the exception of the detectives. Even so, a number of the suspects behave like spies, because the mechanics of plotting require it. At one point in One, Two, Buckle My Shoe, Poirot is accused of being a spy himself: “you’re a spy, that’s what you are! A miserable, low, snooping spy, nosing round and making trouble!” (One, Two, Buckle My Shoe 110). In And Then There Were None where a detective presence is notably absent, all the characters are required to behave as spies to identify the killer. Any conclusions reached about Christie’s personal views on espionage need to be seen in this context.
In his critical work Intrigue: Espionage and Culture, Allan Hepburn asserts that “a spy may be born, not made: endowed with a desire to know, the spy extends innate human curiosity to realms of political intrigue” (xiii). Indeed, it is the suspicion and paranoia omnipresent in wartime conditions that urges Tommy and Tuppence to re-engage with the “secret papers and master spies” (N or M? 142) they encountered in the First World War during The Secret Adversary (1922). Christie’s use of Tommy and Tuppence as recurring secret agent characters indicates that the role of the spy only comes into play when contemporary culture somehow requires it; in this instance, an external threat to national security. Christie’s spies, therefore, are outsiders, not merely because of the requirements of their clandestine role, but also due to factors of age, gender and race. Therefore, Hepburn’s claim that a spy cannot be ‘made’, but rather possesses an inherent set of qualities that flourish in certain conditions is incompatible with the theory that spies are a product of their cultural conditions. The nature and work of Christie’s spies is determined by their environment, so although their curiosity is innate, the reason for their undercover work not merely political intrigue, but rather an external demand for the restoration of order.
The insidious undercurrent of real-life espionage during the Second World War arguably caused the popularity of the spy thriller to rival that of the Golden Age detective novel. The secrecy that surrounded wartime Secret Service activity meant that the omnipresent detective was transformed into the omniscient spy, for whom the concealment of his or her true identity was crucial to solving the crime. Disguise gives the spy the outward appearance of equality with the suspects under investigation. Historian and philosopher Tzvetan Todorov discusses the effects of re-positioning the agent of detection, observing that the protagonist is no longer “immunised” (47), but rather exists in an atmosphere of constant, palpable risk. Indeed, in N or M?, the spies who perform dangerous physical feats are the most compelling; when dinnertime conversation turns to the subject of espionage, the residents of Sans Souci eagerly exchange stories of “the nun with the muscular arm, the clergyman descending from his parachute and using unclergymanlike language as he landed with a bump, the Austrian cook who secreted a wireless in her bedroom chimney” (48) and other such tales. The nature of the appeal arguably stems from the fact that the stories are bizarre, yet simultaneously manage to contain the potential for truth. Christie plays on the atmosphere of genuine wartime threat by weaving these secondary narratives into the main narrative, reflecting a fascination with the unknowable that exists in parallels with the every-day. These images imitate those that Christie and her readers would have frequently encountered in the media, such as a series of satirical articles published by Punch in 1940 on the fictitious disease ‘Spy Fever’, the symptoms of which included “an increasing tendency to note down suspicious people and report them to the local police” (“Are You Feeling Spy Feverish?” 5193). The series included a list of criteria for suspicious people (primarily those with “any foreign accent whatever” (“Are You Feeling Spy Feverish?” 5193), and advice on “parachutists and how to treat them” (“Are You Feeling Spy Feverish?” 5200). Such comical images satirised the mania that circulated around espionage during the war, and are the antithesis of the typically sub-human agent which Hepburn characterises as “spectral” (xiv) and “phantasmic” (14). Intrigue is created by the very relatability of the spy, and the fact that the role could be adopted by the most unlikely of candidates.
Consequently, Christie’s spies are typically less ruthless and dynamic, rather than an early James Bond-like agent of action. It could be argued that Christie’s decision to focus on the relatability and personability of her spies comes from an increased scrutiny of minorities and figures of vulnerability during this time of national crisis. When supposed single mother Mrs Sprot is revealed as the German agent M, Tuppence asserts that using a toddler to reaffirm her cover story was an act of “supreme psychological camouflage” (N or M?, 182). Christie plays on a general inability to align maternal figures with covert operations, again contradicting the stereotypes of the “phantasmic” secret agent. The eventual discovery of the evidence of the Fifth Column is disguised within books of nursery rhymes, causing both reader and agent to fall foul of their own ingrained cultural beliefs about identifying danger. Robin Winks’ argument that the war re-oriented the focus of the espionage genre to be more on “personality than plot” (8) manifests itself in Christie’s use of outsider figures that harbour bitter resentments about their treatment during the war. In particular, Christie criticises the dismissal of the abilities of the older generation; Deborah patronisingly refers to her parents’ supposedly overexaggerated encounters with “secret papers and master spies” (N or M? 142), causing Tuppence to lament that “it’s all very well for… the young generally to run risks, but that the mere middle-aged must be shielded” (N or M? 165-166). Conveniently for Christie the whodunit writer, the spy is most frequently the character the reader least expects, because that character has been alienated and either voluntarily or involuntarily withdrawn.
However, the fact that Tommy and Tuppence are outsiders is advantageous to their covert roles in the operation. Tommy is estranged from the Secret Service for over twenty years, causing Grant to approach him because “you don’t know any of them – and they don’t know you” (N or M? 12). His age provides depth to the identity he is demanded to perform, and he gives a convincing performance of a First World War veteran drilled in in the Fifth Corfeshires, which is validated by Major Bletchley (N or M? 24). Christie presents the identity of an ex-soldier as a reliable one, which legitimises his character and facilitates “a controlled but total escape from the constraints of self” (Cawelti 13-14). In contrast, Tuppence identifies that the German agents N and M would in all probability belong to the younger generation, as “the Nazi creed was a youth creed” (N or M? 72). It is this single-minded allegiance that allows the younger generation to be manipulated, such as Tony Marsdon, who is present as a malicious secondary character in both N or M? and And Then There Were None. His infiltration of the Coding Department exposed by his “mildly Fascist views” (N or M? 148) suggest that his character is a recurring allegory for young people with weak or misplaced allegiances. The best agents, therefore, are the ones who intuitively embed themselves in social groups by conforming to specific cultural expectations.
The spy figure is also bound up in racial discourse and fears of infiltration by enemy ‘aliens’. It is significant that Tommy and Tuppence undertake a mission of counter-espionage in which the source of fear is a Fifth Columnist, a British national working as a foreign agent. Christie exposes the extent to which the British understand other nations through stereotypes; Tommy fails to investigate Commander Haydock when he considers him a hearty Englishman” (N or M? 127), only realising his mistake when he sees the face of “a bad-tempered overbearing Prussian Officer” (N or M? 127). Furthermore, there is an implicit critique in the name choice of Mr Rosenstein (N or M? 57) when Vanda Polonska is suggested to be watching Sans Souci, the Jewish connotations of which play on the anti-Semitism so prevalent in that era.
Christie shows that rather than providing innate characteristics, national identity can be imitated and performed. As seen with Tommy’s identity of a war veteran, his cover story is defined by his role in protecting national security. Tuppence’s fabricated sons play a crucial role in justifying how she sources her intelligence and validating her interest in wartime intelligence; Douglas in the Navy, Raymond is in the Air Force and Cyril is in the Territorials (N or M? 21). Christie demonstrates the ease with which national identity can be performed, and how it is falsely linked to the arbitrary qualities of reliability, honesty and moral respectability. Physical and technological disguise is equally important. As evidenced by the significance Christie places on how people are treated as a result of their nationality, aesthetic is crucial in allowing the spy figure to construct an effective persona. Indeed, critics have demonstrated the impact of urban and industrial societies on defining people in terms of their identities rather than their characters, using what Ronald R. Thomas refers to as “devices of truth” (290). The increasing use of technology, fingerprints, documents and lie detectors as a means of determining character meant identity was physicalised around the time of the Second World War, thus redefining a universal truth which lends itself to fabricating identity. Tuppence uses an elaborate disguise to masquerade as Nurse Elton; a German agent parachuted in to receive instruction from fellow agent N (N or M? 168). Much to her shock, her disguise completely alters her appearance (N or M? 168), demonstrating the propensity for disguise to turn outward and reinforce a meticulously crafted cover story.
Constructed identities are then used as vehicles to observe and analyse the enemy. One of the defining features of the spy is the challenge they pose to “frontier mentality” (Hepburn 11); maintaining the boundary between themselves and their adversary by working within their own nation. In N or M?, the fact that “we respect our adversaries and they respect us” (41) is considered by Tommy to be a “strange anomaly of war” (41), created by the implicit knowledge that both sides are engaged in various levels of counter-espionage. Christie considers secret agents from opposing sides, and questions how and why they have internalised a particular ideology. Therefore, rather than merely being weapons of the state, Christie’s spies are produced gradually through a process of becoming politically determined. She shows that for Hepburn’s analogy that “little rooms accommodate espionage and counterespionage plots that leak into the world beyond” (287) to be true, the reverse must also occur for the agent to choose and justify their commitments. Historian Petra Rau emphasises that war writers are averse to patronising their readers, so tend to present characters in spaces “afflicted with such a sense of the provisional and contingent that this uncertainty affects their sense of identity” (12). Lifestyle changes required by the war transgressed the everyday, causing the sense that these identities are uncertain because they are being borrowed temporarily.
Therefore, in some ways Tommy and Tuppence’s fluctuating identities also represents shifts between multiple consciousnesses. They possess a unique view of the world based on shared secrets, while pretending to maintain a shared view of reality (Cawelti 16). This dual identity presents the reader with the problem of a web of perspectives, and requires them to sift through information to determine its reliability. Active participation by the reader means they are drawn into the clandestine world, and compelled to follow the spy’s complex journey.
3. The Intelligence: Decoding the Data
Intrinsic to the spy novel is the act of gathering intelligence. In real life, the content of the information is vital, but in fiction it matters less than the identity of the spy and the stratagems employed. Intelligence-gathering drives the act of espionage, and in Christie’s novels is presented in a variety of forms that include codes, technological communications and crossword-style puzzles and rhymes. Christie shows that the significance of intelligence is not how it is gathered, but rather how it is translated, decoded and unscrambled. Rather than plain facts, Christie presents intelligence as a method of representation in which secrets are encrypted. Coded intelligence therefore implies a shared system of knowledge (Hepburn 50) that the spy is required to break into, whether it is numerical representation, images or linguistic codes.
The role of detection and intelligence-gathering in Christie’s novels functions at various levels, from the detective who is required to order seemingly disconnected evidence into a coherent narrative, to how the reader receives and decodes the information. Christie’s novels focus on the centrality of the creative puzzle created by a crime, focusing on the presentation of selected pieces of information rather than emotional engagement or character development (Beek 23; Symons 102). She presents the art of detection as similar to understanding an optical illusion, much like the “kaleidoscope” (122) of images that “all rose up and whirled and settled themselves down into a coherent pattern” (122) for Poirot in One, Two, Buckle My Shoe. Rather than a rigid formula, the kaleidoscope analogy serves to demonstrate how the mystery is coordinated using a selection of patterns, shapes and impressions. Fluid perspectives and flexible ways of thinking are portrayed as crucial to gaining access to new fields of vision, and ultimately solving the crime.
Christie’s fascination with wartime intelligence is reflected by frequent references to intelligence-gathering and code breaking in her novels. Her notebooks in her archive show that whilst writing N or M? she experimented with the notes of the musical scale ABCDEFG and the lines and spaces of the stave to see if it was possible to use them to create codes (Murder in the Making 196). She explores how ciphers and symbols could have been used in the work that she imagined was occurring in intelligence departments intercepting foreign communications. Tuppence is concerned that the job Tommy is offered in RAF intelligence (precisely the job Christie’s husband, Max Mallowan, had recently taken up) will induce him to “walk about all night groaning and repeating 978345286 or something like that” (N or M? 15), consumed by coded intelligence that is near impossible to solve. Her imaginations are supported by a certain amount of specialised knowledge of espionage activity. John Curran reports that “in the middle of [her] notes, there are some pages of real ‘spy’ detail” (Murder in the Making 195), including references to cables on the bottom of the Atlantic laid by submarines to copy messages, and that the mention of ‘illness’ means that spying is under observation (Murder in the Making 195). The notes provide a fascinating glimpse into a relatively unknown area of the Second World War, and the somewhat surprising insight that Christie was able to access this information while the war was still in progress.
The way intelligence is gathered and interpreted in Christie’s work is undoubtedly influenced by developing communications technology during the war. In N or M?, the remote location of Sans Souci means that technology is the driving force of enemy infiltration, shown when Tommy exposes Commander Haydock in his accidental discovery of an impressive transmitting wireless apparatus (127). Wartime technology in the intelligence sector was particularly extensive, epitomised by the creation of Alan Turing’s famous bombe; an electromechanical machine that cracked the German Enigma code using a process of elimination, and also formed the basis of the modern computer (Sebag-Montefiore 62). It is clear from the text of N or M? that Deborah works with cutting edge communications technology at a secret establishment not unlike Bletchley: she states “my job is very interesting, but so hush-hush I can’t tell you about it” (69), and later, speaks of Tony Marsden as “one of the most brilliant beginners in the coding department.” (140). Christie depicts an “inner ring” (N or M? 129) of secret communications used by both Secret Service agents and enemies alike to exchange and decode information. These exclusive communications are very much hinted at rather than explicitly described, implying an undercurrent of covert activity.
Christie is fascinated by the ways in which technology can be used to exchange covert information and produce new facts without revealing its source. Significantly, in And Then There Were None, the characters are incriminated by a hidden gramophone, which produces “The Voice” (37); an “inhuman, penetrating” (37) indictment describing the various crimes of which each individual is guilty. The disembodied, mechanised voice judges the characters and holds them to account, asking “have you anything to say in your defence?” (38). The machine imitates the social construction of justice, creating the implication that technology has evolved to have superior morals to humankind. The ability of machines to hold humans to ransom was often seen in Bletchley Park; the German Enigma machine permitted fifteen quadrillion code combinations (“Cracking the Enigma code”), which presented the code-breakers with sequences of indecipherable intelligence that they were required to unscramble. Like the penetrating voice that incriminates the characters on the island, the machine displaces the human origin of the intelligence, thereby making it untraceable and removing the characters’ accountability. Robert Harris’s observation that Enigma operates in such a way that “nothing is ever itself” (65) becomes the epitome of how the machine creates code to displace any evidence of a human presence. Technology resists the human impulse to control and bring it into a way we can understand, which creates fear.
Christie’s use of linguistic codes, including rhymes, phonetic spelling and anagrams, hides relevant pieces of information crucial to the plot in plain sight. The information provided is dependent on the investigator’s ability to decode it, which is crucial to the gradual accumulation of ‘puzzle pieces’, or clues, to solve the mystery. An example is the identity of the hotel Sans Souci in N or M?; the hotel is originally obscured by a play on words when it is referred to as “Song Susie” (13), and later Tuppence reflects that believing in it as the headquarters of a Fifth Column “needed the mental equipment of the White Queen in “Alice”” (30). Indeed, it seems that having the ‘mental equipment’ to analyse at the impossible with an original perspective is crucial to constructing and unscrambling codes. In the author’s note accompanying And Then There Were None, Christie describes her fascination with constructing a story in which “ten people had to die without it becoming ridiculous or the murderer being obvious” (ref), constructing an encoded challenge for both herself and the reader. The ten characters are invited to the island under various pretences by an elusive “U.N.Owen” (And Then There Were None 49), who is quickly identified as the anonymous ‘unknown’. The murders directly or indirectly imitate the order and nature of the events in the rhyme ‘Ten Little Soldier Boys’, which frames the narrative to distract from reasonable, rational explanations to the mystery. The setting of Soldier Island and the anticipation of the killer as “a bogus little soldier boy” (And Then There Were None 124) creates a large number of possibilities for the murderer, introducing themes of deduction and process of elimination as methodologies for calculating the killer.
The title and narrative of One, Two, Buckle My Shoe also follows a traditional nursery rhyme, even more explicitly in named chapters, but in a way that is perhaps more contrived and less intrinsic to the plot. Christie’s archive notes illustrate how she trialed and tested various ways of employing the rhyme, which Curran describes as “the only aspect of the novel that does not ring true” (Secret Notebooks 117). In contrast, critics such as Alistair Rolls argue that the trademark nursery rhyme is a formula “crucially, from which the text explodes” (7), rendering it the very source of truth. Although Roll’s interpretation seems a long way from the matter-of-fact style of Christie’s writing, he poses a potentially valid point about the way in which formulaic rhymes can open up the narrative rather than limit it. The more sparing use of the trademark nursery rhyme in N or M? successfully integrates “Goosey, Goosey Gander” into the story as a code for where the Fifth Column intelligence is hidden (175), which is the key to the solution of the crime. Rather than limiting the narrative, in a closed setting where information is being shared and intercepted, the confrontation of formulae and literature encodes the significance of specific intelligence.
However, information is not always reliable, and the content of intelligence can be altered and manipulated. An interesting aspect of intelligence raised in N or M? is the notion of foreign characters coming under suspicion because of their ethnicity. Christie shows that both the reader and detective can be deceived by ciphers and symbols that they see as having a ‘foreign’ influence. The note that Mrs Sprot produces after the abduction of Betty in N or M? is written “in a queer stiff foreign hand-writing, big and bold” (99). As well as the meaning of ‘foreign’ as strange or alien, it could be argued that here in the context of the Polish woman and search for a German Fifth Columnist, it refers to ethnicity. Christie plays on the inability of the characters to analyse something as apolitical as handwriting objectively, exposing the compulsion to understand code through implicit yet widely ingrained cultural assumptions and stereotypes. Critic Michael Moon points out that the title N or M? with its letters moved together can be read as a single question: norm? (73). As previously discussed, Christie establishes that the most effective form of disguise is through ordinariness. She shows that codes are present in contemporary culture as much as in mathematics, and in the form of social codes and how we relate to others. We assume shared intelligence on a daily basis through human interaction. Her characters absorb code into contemporary culture and use it to communicate; Albert is observed to be “frightfully B.B.C” (146) in his language. Tommy snores in morse code, using the correct pauses and variations to obtain Albert’s attention (N or M? 156). Consequently, formulae are given new cultural meanings when they are opened up in a social capacity.
A key element of Christie’s appeal is due to her satisfying endings, in this case a sense that the wrongdoers have been revealed and that the intelligence-gathering has yielded a result. However, while ensuring that the killers are brought to justice, the ongoing war demonstrates the need for continuing intelligence-gathering that gathers momentum as the plot unfolds. In a tailpiece of One, Two, Buckle My Shoe, following the arrest of Alistair Blunt for three separate murders, Poirot discusses the morality of arresting a figure who is indispensable to his country with the consistently helpful man known as Barnes. Barnes’ revelation that he is in fact Chapman, an intelligence agent, leaves readers nonplussed in an extraordinary finale. The conclusion of N or M? is similarly reconciled in the triumph of the intelligence and the identification of the Fifth Columnists N and M, instilling confidence in the wartime reader. “And now let them come!” (N or M? 184) says Mr Grant. “We’ll be ready for them!” (N or M? 184). In a twist remarkably similar to the earlier novel, supposed German refugee Carl von Deinem reveals that he is in fact an intelligence agent, ending on a note where, once again, the Secret Service has outwitted everyone.
Christie’s representation of espionage and covert surveillance is encapsulated in her account of the activities of Secret Service agents shortly before and during the Second World War. Of the three novels under consideration, And Then There Were None is more of a thriller than a detective story, ingeniously plotted, and containing an implicit critique of pre-war Britain. One, Two, Buckle My Shoe isa more traditional detective story featuring Poirot, in which Christie examinesthe ideological conflict on the eve of war with the threat of fascism looming large. N or M?, written in the second year of the war, is her attempt at a spy story, more overtly critical of Britain’s lack of preparation as spies become embedded in a coastal town. Of all three novels, it is N or M? that contains the most prominent critique of the culture of xenophobic suspicion and consequent national-scale introspection resulting from the war. In Christie’s hands, the spy novel becomes a portal through which the clandestine activities of the state can be accessed. Although not all of the novels under consideration contain secret agents, the use of closed settings and unsatisfactory governmental systems increases the sense of concealment and voyeurism simultaneously. The incipient paranoia in the population adds tension to the narrative, reflecting an atmosphere of suspicion.
The approach of historicising Christie’s novels within the context of the Second World War therefore has the effect of illuminating political nuances in the text which had previously gone unnoticed. Christie capitalises on the culture of fear created by the war, yet also draws the reader into its compelling clandestine activities. Commentary on operations that infiltrate and transgress authority politicises the novels, demonstrating engagement with public opinion that is less developed in her domestic, country house mysteries. The use of spies creates a dual reality that can be simultaneously both real and unreal, allowing the material to have the entertainment value of escapism while also being relevant to contemporary feelings of insecurity.
While Christie’s unique version of the spy novel may appear superficial in some respects, it is evident that it successfully addresses concerns regarding the vulnerable state of the nation and enemy infiltration. The central role of the agent rather than the detective reflects a shift from policed procedure to semi-legal activity that is crucial to the depiction of undercover investigation that is both extraordinary yet has the potential for truth. Tommy’s comment about the “strange anomaly of war” (N or M? 41) is revealing because a war is one of the only justifications for transgressions of morality and legality that are exempt from accountability and remain invisible to the public eye. Espionage exists not only in the Fifth Column, but also infiltrating the corporate sphere for the defence of government and industry. It reaches the very heart of Britain, causing the nation to turn inwards in a way that is counter-productive to communities and international relations. Consequently, this project has revealed nuances in a number of widely held assumptions about Christie, chiefly her label as a conservative writer who based characters on racial stereotypes. Indeed, it is perhaps because of the racial and national divides of the war that patriotism and duty become more about recognising humanity and accepting vulnerability.
As a result, using a historicised perspective of attitudes to espionage and covert operations has larger ramifications for how Christie is viewed as an author today. Discussions of Christie as a writer of espionage fiction positions her writing in a genre that is different to Golden Age detective fiction, and has been assigned with its own set of rules and criteria. One clear difference in this departure from the classic detective story is the fact that, in contrast to the detective, the agent is in constant danger and may be wounded or incapacitated in the quest to discover the culprit. For readers during the Second World War, this vulnerability was comparable with the genuine threat that they themselves were subject to, while avoiding being patronising or pitying.
However, it would be unreasonable to compare Christie with committed spy writers like Graham Greene, John le Carré and Ian Fleming, each of whom worked in the Secret Service. Neither does she fit the tradition of the older generation mentioned by Chief Inspector Japp: Phillips Oppenheim, Valentine Williams and William le Queux (One, Two, Buckle My Shoe 87). She is alone with her spy-story-cum-whodunit led by the upbeat duo of Tommy and Tuppence. Furthermore, this project deliberately excludes novels written during the war in which the themes of espionage and covert activities are absent, so it would be necessary to look at how they contribute to Christie’s political commentary in order to gain a broader understanding. With regard to the themes of secrecy and surveillance, the historical significance of intelligence has long been a topic of controversy among historians. Ambiguities surround historical espionage because much of the data on covert operations remains in secret archives; information that MI5 investigated Christie in 1940 was released as recently as 2013, and many of the code breaking methods used in Bletchley Park were still in operation during the Cold War. Therefore, rather than providing a definitive set of answers, the project creates more questions regarding how to classify Christie’s spy novels without limiting them to the confines of detective fiction, and the implications for research that dismiss her novels as political and social commentaries. Indeed, the spy as a figure is the very epitome of uncertainty, resisting recognition and transgressing man-made systems of social and legal conduct. Rather than providing her own answers, Christie demonstrates that espionage is part of a much larger fear of lack of stability, a compulsion to discover the hidden truth, and a desire to restore order. This, paradoxically, is also the definition of a detective story.
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