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The Irregulars

Roald Dahl's days as a savvy British spy in wartime Washington.

By Carlo Wolff / September 11, 2008



Jennet Conant sets straight a record some might consider a tad twisted in The Irregulars, her book about the World War II espionage exploits of British author Roald Dahl.

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Conant, who also wrote the critically acclaimed “Tuxedo Park” and “109 East Palace,” has a gift for  writing large stories based on  the activities of seemingly minor figures. Here she deserves credit for fresh angles and insights, despite having bitten off a tad more than she can chew.

While Dahl is the focal point of “The Irregulars,” he’s not enough to warrant so large a story, and therein lies a rub: Dahl fades to a lesser character in a narrative that also features such historical giants as Franklin Delano Roosevelt (depicted as both devious and brilliant), hectoring, ambitious Texas newspaper publisher Charles Edward Marsh, and fellow spy and author-to-be Ian Fleming. Considering the wealth of material Conant handles, however, she succeeds nicely in the retelling of this true spy story.

Conant conjures the ambience of Washington, D.C., at a time when the US remained ambivalence about joining Britain in the fight against the Nazis.  To help persuade Americans, the British government enlisted spymaster William Stephenson in an effort to sway US opinion.

As background to Dahl’s story, Conant explores the never-ending battle between isolationism and globalism in a way that makes her story surprisingly relevant to contemporary readers. Also fascinating: her too-brief-but-provocative probe of the bleak mood that overcame the postwar Dahl when his sense of war as murder overrode his pleasure in the glamour of wartime derring-do.

“The Irregulars” makes a persuasive argument that Stephenson acolyte Dahl and other figures with a literary bent (including Fleming and Noel Coward) were critical to the effort to end US isolationism. Dahl’s literary talent, his reputation as a Royal Air Force pilot wounded in the early part of World War II, and his social ease made him a natural spy.

Above all, his connections to Marsh, a media mogul and “dedicated New Dealer” who deserves a biography of his own, gave Dahl entrée to the highest levels of D.C. society, both economic and political.

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