The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington
Conant, a former journalist, is a thorough researcher. In this book, she digs into the secret wartime propaganda work that Roald Dahl and his British colleagues were assigned to do to drum up American support for World War II. Many official documents about this secret ring of spies were only declassified in 1998, and many of them remain legally inaccessible—and the author notes the difficulty of having to distinguish who is telling tall tales about their actual work.
That said, her recreation of the events that happened during the last years of WWII and Franklin Delano Roosevelt seem to spring to life from the page. The book's colorful cast of characters reads like a “Who's Who” of the political and celebrity elite of the era, including FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt, Ian Fleming, David Ogilvy, Clare Boothe Luce, and Lyndon Johnson, among others. Drawing from correspondence and interviews with dozens of people, Conant vividly recreates England's wartime tension, which coincided with Washington's reckless socializing and split political opinions on how much “help” to give to the British while they were fighting the Nazis.
In the midst of this serious situation are fun moments—tales of buildings that have floors without corresponding elevator buttons, and fake pens that can set off tear gas – where it seems like you're reading a James Bond novel. This is all the more interesting in light of the fact that Fleming would go on to pen those world-famous books, which would later be made into movies.
Conant's attention to detail and brilliant reconstruction of events that happened more than sixty-five years ago make The Irregulars a quick and interesting read, but also a maddening one: as she herself points out, Dahl and his fellow spies were happy to work in an environment where women were mere accessories or means to an end. Each female in the book was blatantly used for her looks, her body, her money, her influence, or some combination thereof. If Dahl and his cohorts, married or not, also happened to pull them into the sack, well, that was just an extra perk.
It's said that you should never meet your heroes; I'd qualify that by adding that you should never read biographical works about them, either. I grew up loving Dahl's books, particularly because of the way the characters thumbed their noses at authority (which he himself did in real life, almost costing himself his wartime assignments on a number of occasions). As a child I assumed that Dahl was a person I'd like to meet; after reading The Irregulars, I have to say I was left with the idea that he was a skirt-chasing, adulterous, sexist pig. If you can get past that, hold your nose and read this book.