Monday, April 27, 2009

The Irregulars

Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington

By Jennet Conant

How can a book be so very, very interesting and yet, at the same time, so eye-wateringly dull? Such is the sad state of The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington by Jennet Conant. There’s a lot of remarkable information in this book, but it often gets lost in details that may be of interest to a hardcore historian, but less so for the rest of us. So many times, I wanted to put this book down, never to return, only to come across a passage so fascinatingly brilliant that I had no choice but to plow on. If you decide to tackle this book, please consider a few humble suggestions:

Don’t expect Bond, James Bond: Mingling with the rich, famous, and influential? Absolutely. Hanky-panky? Oodles. High-tech gadgets? Not so much, although Ian Flaming did have a pen that ejected tear gas. Primarily, the spies in this book formed relationships with the right people, then kept their eyes and ears open (and occasionally seduced their sources) for information that would be valuable to Britain. Or they used gossip to destroy Britain’s enemies. True Bond-style action is rare, although the book does allude to a British spy training camp – Camp X, naturally – where spies were trained to “cripple police dogs by grabbing their front legs and tearing their chests apart, and to kill a man with…bare hands.”

Don’t expect too much Roald Dahl either: Contrary to the title, I don’t consider Dahl the main character in this book. There are entire chapters where he is barely mentioned. This book is really about the people and politics of wartime Washington. Dahl is useful to the narrative because as he wanders through Washington, he rubs elbows with many of the key players in the labyrinthine political scene and Conant can then introduce them to us in depth. The Irregulars doesn’t really suffer for this. Most of these other characters are vibrant and interesting in their own right.

Don’t feel like you have to remember everything: Especially all of the people and acronyms. Where it comes to all of the acronyms, just assume that each one stands for a clandestine government agency; its specific role generally isn’t important. As for the people, the ones you really need to know are mentioned so often that you’ll soon come to know them without too much effort.

Don’t be afraid to skim: A lot.

In the end, it takes a lot of effort to wade through this book. Most will probably choose not to, which is a shame. They won’t witness the elaborate lengths a rich tycoon will go to in order to conceal his mistress’ pregnancy. They won’t laugh at Dahl’s boyish pranks or marvel at the tale of the fake map that convinced the U.S. that the Germans had American conquest in mind. Maybe, if we’re lucky, Reader’s Digest will publish a condensed version that everyone can enjoy. 2.5/5 stars


Lula O said...

There's stuff written in Reader's Digest besides the funny quotes? Hmm, didn't know that.
Who was the rich tycoon that hid the pregnancy?
Was it Dahl? That guy was one weird duck. (Not because of that, but you know, other reasons.) Does it mention if he was writting when all this was going on?

Stephanie said...

No, it was publishing tycoon Charles Marsh, the most influential behind-the-scenes political guy you've never heard of.

As for Dahl, he started writing at this time as part of his spying duties, actually. His first stories were war stories designed to stir up American sypathies for the British.

You know, in this book, Dahl didn't come off so much as weird as just a good-looking womanizer. There are hints of his weirdness (you know it has to be there if you've read his books, right?) when he moves home with his mum and starts breeding racing dogs.

I guess that's another gripe I have with this book. Dahl, our dashing hero, comes off as rather two-dimensional in Conant's portrayal. sigh. I really wanted to love this book.