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.
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.
Dahl hobnobbed effortlessly with characters as disparate as influential journalist Drew Pearson, Roosevelt’s leftist vice president Henry Wallace, and Wallace’s nemesis Clare Boothe Luce, wife of Time owner Henry Luce, who became a Republican congresswoman from Connecticut in 1942 (and bedded Dahl on her way up the political ladder).
When he arrived in the spring of 1942 as an attaché to the British Embassy, Dahl found “Washington brimming with wealthy dowagers and their bored, unmarried daughters,” Conant writes. “Capital society was the American court, complete with its own courtiers, pretenders to the throne, and inevitable hangers-on.”
Washington was a city “where position mattered more than personality,” where Dahl not only fitted in, he rose to the top – particularly after Walt Disney bought “The Gremlins,” an early Dahl story, for a movie that never saw production.
“The Irregulars” focuses on 1943 and 1944, when British espionage in Washington was at its height. In addition to her colorful evocation of a complex city in a singularly tense time, Conant conjures a glamorous, fashionable world in which fidelity took a back seat to power.
Dahl’s fluency, meanwhile, helped buttress the common war effort, kept Roosevelt on course to a fourth term (despite the president’s jettisoning of the controversial Wallace for the safer, less experienced Harry Truman) and advanced Dahl’s own literary career.
While Dahl is best known for such children’s classics as “James and the Giant Peach” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” his political work has remained obscure until now. Credit the determined Conant for bringing it to light.
Carlo Wolff is a freelance writer from Cleveland.