Secret service

A British espionage ring, including Roald Dahl, charmed, spied, and plotted in WWII Washington

''Tall, handsome, and intelligent, Dahl had all the makings of an ideal operative,'' writes Conant in ''The Irregulars.'' ''Tall, handsome, and intelligent, Dahl had all the makings of an ideal operative,'' writes Conant in ''The Irregulars.'' (DUMANT/getty images)
By William Martin
September 7, 2008
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The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington
By Jennet Conant
Simon & Schuster, 393 pp., illustrated, $27.95

It has been 63 years since the end of World War II, so you might think the best stories have already been told. But war is one of the eternal wellsprings of human drama, so there's always another story and always another generation of writers ready to tell the old stories from new angles.

Jennet Conant, best known for her home-front studies of the war ("109 East Palace," about Robert Oppenheimer and Los Alamos), now tells the story of the Irregulars, named after the street urchins of Sherlock Holmes fame.

They are a group of British writers - Roald Dahl, Noel Coward, Ian Fleming among them - "all rank amateurs, recruited for their clever minds and connections rather than any real experience in the trade of spying." They form what Conant calls "Churchill's underground army in America. . . . They planted propaganda in American newspapers, radio stations, and wire services; co-opted leading columnists . . . harassed prominent isolationists and anti-New Dealers; exposed Nazi sympathizers and fifth columnists; and plotted against corporations that were working against British interests." It sounds like something that should keep you up late, embroiled in the adventures of the brave young Brits. And while it's exhaustively researched and vividly written, it isn't quite as riveting as it promises to be.

This isn't the fault of Conant's main character, however, because Dahl fills the book with his personality.

In later life he would write "James and the Giant Peach" and other children's classics, but as his story begins in 1942, he is a young British flyer, grounded because of his wounds and seconded to Washington as RAF attaché. He meets "a self-made Texas oil tycoon and publishing magnate named Charles Edward Marsh, who had moved to the capital when the war made it the most interesting place to be." Marsh knows everyone in D.C. and brings Dahl into his circle.

Soon, Dahl is hobnobbing with American politicians and industrialists and publishing war stories in American magazines. All of this catches the eye of William Stephenson, the Canadian businessman and British spymaster who "had been dispatched to America by Churchill after the nightmarish winter of 1940, during which Mussolini joined forces with Hitler, German bombs rained down on Britain's cities, and the enemy waited only twenty miles from their shores." Before long, Stephenson brings Dahl into his far more secretive circle.

Other writers amble through the story. Fleming collects material for James Bond. Noel Coward makes a few wisecracks. C. S. Forester helps Dahl get started as a writer. But the story is Dahl's. He's handsome, charming, seductive, witty, sarcastic, caustic, and manipulative, with enough of what it takes to bed congresswoman Clare Boothe Luce (under orders) and seduce actress Patricia Neal when she's on the rebound from her affair with Gary Cooper.

Neal, Dahl's wife of more than 30 years (before a bitter divorce), may capture him best: "Roald could be like sand in an oyster. He seemed to feel he had the right to be awful and no one should dare counter him. Few did."

The problem is that Dahl arrives in America after the hardest work - overcoming America's isolationists and Anglophobes - has been done. Pearl Harbor and Hitler's declaration of war have taken care of that. So none of the struggles that follow seem large enough to compel any sense of danger, any surprise at either the outcomes or the means by which they are achieved. Dahl and the other Brits will manipulate the media. They will contend with turf-conscious bureaucrats on both sides of the Atlantic. They will collect intelligence on disputes over postwar commercial air routes. And as President Franklin Roosevelt's health deteriorates before the 1944 election, they will conspire to remove Vice President Henry Wallace, socialist and Anglophobe, from the ticket.

Even if you don't track Conant's footnotes you will sense a confidence in the writing that makes it clear she's done her research. Though many of the stories have been told before, she has found fresh perspectives in recently discovered letters between Dahl and Marsh. But the truth is that while one of these men had been a giant in his field, and the other would become a giant in his, neither of them changed the course of events between 1940 and 1945.

The best moments in the book are the fascinating cameos: FDR, during a Hyde Park weekend, mixing martinis and casually offering political opinions that Dahl will relay to London; the young Lyndon Johnson, another of Marsh's protégés, having an affair with Marsh's wife; Ernest Hemingway, thrown into Dahl's lap because they're both writers, making a nuisance of himself during the invasion of Europe.

"The Irregulars" will appeal to the reader interested in the subtleties of World War II spycraft as practiced by Britain on her chief ally, the social swirl of wartime Washington, Dahl's writing and his amorous adventures, or new vignettes about some of the famous old warhorses of American politics and letters, circa 1942.

But the general reader might consider something that Conant writes: "When all was said and done, intelligence work was for the most part fairly prosaic and involved a lot of tedious paperwork and shuttling back and forth between the various agencies."

While she vividly captures the personalities who endure the tedium and do the shuttling, she asks her readers to endure a bit too much of it between the parties and the good gossip.

William Martin is the author of "The Lost Constitution."

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