First Published: As an abridged version in the US magazine Redbook in 1941 under the same name.
I Read: N or M. New York, 2012, William Morrow, 1st edition.
Series: Tommy & Tuppence
Summary: Something is rotten in the state of Denmark, so to speak. British forces are being undermined by bad intelligence. Intelligence officer Grant fears there are Nazi sympathizers and spies working counter-intelligence within the ranks. The problem is distinguishing the traitors from the honest men. Enter Tommy Beresford, a man who worked in the field during the first World War, but is considered past it (because he’s over forty, cue eye roll) now, during the second war. However some remember his past service, and they feel he’s just the man to root out the infamous N and M, highly trusted spies in the Nazi regime who are organizing an information network within Britain. Tommy is the man outside the system; he doesn’t know anyone in the Ministries’ service and they don’t know him - he can be trusted to discover who is friend and foe. The only wrinkle? Tuppence, his wife, is just as clever and accomplished and will not be denied her part in the war effort.
Review: I was predisposed to enjoy this book - it has a married couple, spies and cleverness. What’s not to like? Unfortunately, I don’t think this book lived up to its potential. This is a spy thriller where Tommy and Tuppence were sent to ferret out traitors, spies and a murderer - meaning there should be a sense of tension throughout the book, which for me was lacking until the last one hundred and twelve pages when I hit the turning point. I will admit before The Point there was plenty of humor, but it just didn’t get up and move the way I thought an espionage mystery should. If I had not been required to finish the book, in all likelihood I would have set it aside unfinished. By comparison, N or M is not nearly as tedious as Murder On The Links with Hastings dithering and wittering on - that was truly painful! In the end I am glad I stuck it out. It was interesting to read about WWII from the perspective (even fictional) of someone living through it at the time (at the time of publication there was still around five years-ish until the end of WWII).
During WWII, enigma machines were used by the German military to encode their communications. For spies working on foreign soil, like N or M, these machines were too risky to possess. If they fell into the Allies' hands it would provide a strategic advantage in the war (btw the Allies did get them by capturing ships/submarines and seizing the machines & documents). So a simple to use but difficult to decrypt cypher was needed for operatives; one which fits the bill is the book cypher (I couldn’t find an origin date for this code, but I suspect it was sometime after the advent of the printing press in 1453). Used in tandem with invisible inks and, say, written between the lines of a letter (or a book - hopefully the agent would be smart enough not to write the code using the same book it was written in, but every field has inept workers), these methods provided clandestine encoded communications which added layers of security. The only hitch in the giddy-up here is what book to use......
If you are reading this blog at home take a look at your book shelves (or if you are at work picture them in your mind's eye. And thank you for choosing my blog for your procrastinating pleasure today!), then think of your libraries or your favorite book shops (hint, hint). This is where the security of the book code centers, the staggering number of books in print, with thousands more being written every day, in hundreds of languages, across the world. Mind boggling isn’t it? The sticky wicket for the book cipher is both the sender and recipient must agree on both the title and edition of the book being used. Otherwise the communique could be completely incomprehensible to the recipient of the message.
Encoding a message can be tedious, since finding the needed word in the text can be challenging depending on the book chosen. Over the years, favorites have emerged; dictionaries and encyclopedias due to their tidy formats and the enormous number of different words used. Another fave is the Bible, due in part to the sheer number of them floating around the globe. Think of every hotel room you’ve been in and the number of Gideon Bibles you have subsequently seen. However, these types of books come at a price - while they make it easier to produce codes, the codes are easier to break.
The book cypher is relatively straightforward to use: it goes page number, line number, word number. Agreeing beforehand on counting lines from the top or bottom of the page or words from the left or right margins - the variations on this theme are numerous.
Perhaps N or M should have used the book cipher; it would have rendered their intelligence information more secure. But perhaps Christie thought the use of invisible ink in the story was enough and going beyond it in the mystery would be uninteresting to her readers, I am not sure. It just seems to me an extra level of realism would have been achieved if a book cypher, or a cypher of any type was used on the book.
Since I am not on a first name basis (well, that I know of) with any spies I have to rely on fiction for examples of the book cypher, two readily spring to mind and funnily enough both revolve around Sherlock Holmes. In Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011 with Robert Downey Jr. & Jude Law) Moriarty uses a botanical text to encrypt a personal note book which detailed his plans and financial data. Holmes, being the observant guy he is, figured out Moriarty’s method of note taking. Using this knowledge, Holmes financially cripples his nemesis, providing a metaphorical mortal wound to his enemy on many levels.
In the Sherlock episode called "The Blind Banker" (season 1 episode 2 of the 2010 BBC adaptation) Sherlock and Watson stumble on a smuggling ring who uses a book code to communicate with their mules. I don’t want to give too much away here, spoilers you know, but the episode is absolutely brilliant in showing the audience how the book cypher is used and the pros and cons of this system. I cannot say enough good things about this episode or show!
It is easy to look on this type of code as being antiquated in this age of the computer chip. But even computers have a limit and this type of code provides the cover needed to thwart them through pure overwhelming numbers (seriously there are billions of books out there, finding the correct title an edition is like finding a needle in a haystack or a mint first edition coy of the Velveteen Rabbit at a garage sale - it happens, but very rarely). I would be careful before ruling the book cypher out as a viable method, Sherlock’s "The Blind Banker" (even though it is fiction) shows us how effective and relevant the cypher still is.
“I don’t mind lying in the least. To be quite honest I get a lot of artistic pleasure out of my lies.” (pg. 61)
Interesting Fact: When Agatha Christie was missing for ten days back in December of 1926 Sir Arthur Conan Doyle took an interest in her disappearance. He provided a discarded glove of Christie’s to a medium so she could try to divine her whereabouts. Since she was discovered by a member of the hotel staff where she was staying, it does not appear his attempt was very successful. (BTW Doyle was not the only mystery author to try sleuthing, Sayers tried her hand at locating Christie as well.)
183.1.1. 49.29.1 3.22.1 81.11. 8 11.13.5 143.8.9 11.13.7 236.17.7
216.7.11 183.10.2 178.26.2 6.25.12 179.8.8. 14.24.1 82.23.8
(Seriously this short message took me an hour to put together and wine did not play a role here! Finding the correct words in the right tenses was tough - I can see the appeal of the dictionaries and encyclopedias now! Or perhaps I just need more practice....)