‘Had he been blind up to now? That jovial florid face- the face of a “hearty Englishman”- was only a mask. Why had he not seen it all along for what it was- the face of a bad-tempered overbearing Prussian officer.’
-Agatha Christie, N or M?, p. 144.
Throughout Agatha Christie’s novel N or M?, characters that are demonstrated as belonging to different nationalities to Britain are clearly demarcated as figures of ‘Otherness’. Shown to be distinct from English nationality, these characters are treated with suspicion and distrust, alienated from society and treated as possible threats to British safety simply due to their position as foreign nationals. In doing so, Christie deploys racial tropes to create clear distinctions between the inherent goodness of the English in the face of opposing threatening nationalities during the Second World War.
This viewing of the foreign ‘Other’ with distrust and suspicion is clearly highlighted through the actions of Tommy and Tuppence Beresford in the narrative. When asked to investigate suspected foreign activity in the fictional town of Leahampton, the pair immediately begin to isolate and alienate suspects through a discourse fraught with ‘Othering’. Throughout the novel, the married couple repeatedly isolate people of suspicion due to their foreign nationalities; this is highlighted through their suspicions surrounding the Irish Mrs. Perenna. As Tuppence informs Tommy:
‘Yes. She’s Irish- as spotted by Mrs O’Rourke- won’t admit the fact. Has done a good deal of coming and going on the Continent. Changed her name to Perenna, came here and started this boarding- house. A splendid bit of camouflage, full of innocuous bores’.1
Through her character description of Mrs. Perenna, Tuppence clearly isolates her suspect with a motive; she becomes a figure of ‘Otherness’, colluded with the ‘continent’ and entirely removed from any notion of British identity. Mrs Perenna’s ability to ‘camouflage’ (p.57), which bears clear connotations of concealment and deceit, is coupled with her supposed reluctance to be labelled as Irish. In the process of changing of her name, as well as her subsequent disassociation from her Irish roots, Mrs Perenna becomes a potential suspect in the narrative purely due to her foreignness. This, in turn, comes to highlight the unease felt amongst the British people towards those of different nationalities during the Second World War.
Suspicions surrounding foreign activity are not, however, only confined to Mrs Perenna; rather, speculation throughout the text is also placed on Carl Von Deinim, a man believed to be a ‘refugee from Nazi persecution, given asylum and shelter by England’ (p.28). However, this presumed identity as a refugee immediately displaces Deinim as an outsider, forced out of his country and placed on the fringes of national identity by Nazi Germany due to his Jewish faith. Despite having been the victim of anti-Semitism and persecuted by his home nations government, Deinim still finds himself colluded in England with Germany. As Tuppence remarks, ‘This country’s at war. You’re a German…You can’t expect the mere man in the street – literally the man in the street – to distinguish between bad Germans and good Germans’ (p.30). Regardless of the clear differences between Deinim and the supporters of the Nazi regime, it becomes apparent that he will continue to be associated with the enemy purely due to his nationality. As a result of this, Deinim is treated with distrust by those around him; until the conflict stops, it is made clear to him that he will remain a suspicious ‘other’ within British society.
Even in attempts to conceal foreignness in the text, is becomes apparent that the ‘otherness’ of different nationalities cannot be successfully hidden from Tommy and Tuppence. This is demonstrated through the revealing of Commander Haydock as a ‘Prussian officer’ (p.144). Although successfully disguising himself for a short time, it is soon made apparent to the investigating duo that Haydock is a member of the Fifth Column who plan to invade Britain. As Tommy muses, ‘had he been blind up to now? That jovial florid face – the face of a “hearty Englishman” – was only a mask. Why had he not seen it all along for what it was – the face of a bad-tempered overbearing Prussian officer’ (p. 144). In comparing a ‘hearty Englishman’ to a ‘bad-tempered Prussian officer’ (p.144), Christie asserts a clearly biased difference in mentality and appearance between the two nationalities. Whilst the ‘hearty’ Englishman is presented as ‘wholesome’, ‘substantial’, ‘loudly vigorous and cheerful’2, the Prussian officer finds himself ‘characterised by anger’.3 In this way, Christie appears to suggest that the aggressive true nature of the Commander could never have stayed concealed for long; his true nature as enemy to the wholesome nature of the England that Tuppence and Tommy are keen to protect would inevitably have been revealed. In this way, racial tropes are clearly deployed by Christie to highlight the alienating nature of the enemy in contrast with the automatic goodness and prestige associated with belonging to the British race.
It is through such deployment of racial tropes that characters belonging to different nationalities are alienated and placed on the fringes of ‘otherness’. Regardless of their nationalities, personal histories and allegiances to the British cause, it becomes apparent that British paranoia of external threats in N or M results in the viewing of all foreign figures in the narrative as distrustful and ultimately deceitful.
Featured Image- Cover Image taken from William Morrow Paperbacks 2012 edition of Agatha Christie’s novel N or M? A Tommy & Tuppence Mystery.
Agatha Christie, N or M? (Glasgow: William Collins Son & Co. Ltd, 1941), p.57. All further references to Christie’s text are to this edition and will be given parenthetically.
Oxford Dictionary Online. Available at: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/bad-tempered [Accessed 31/07/2018]
Oxford Dictionary Online. Available at: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/hearty [Accessed 31/07/2018]
Written by Imogen Barker.
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