The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington by Jennet Conant

Most people will probably know of Roald Dahl as the author of the phenomenally popular children’s books, James and the Giant Peach and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. As well as other children’s novels, he wrote also best-selling short stories, two autobiographies, many magazine articles, and pro-British propganda during WWII.

Dahl was a young RAF pilot who suffered serious injuries to his head and spine in a ‘plane crash. He recovered partly, but since he continued to suffer blinding headaches and could not fly, in 1942 he was assigned to the British Embassy in Washington as an Assistant Air Attache. Dahl was incensed to be sent to a job that he felt was a side-line position and proceded to parlay it into something more. He set about using his good looks, wit, and considerable charm to gain access to the most powerful figures in American political life. He started to freelance as an intelligence gatherer and pass on tidbits of gossip he heard in the salons of Washington to William Stephenson, Churchill’s chief spy in the U.S. Stephenson’s British Security Coordination, with headquarters in New York City, was the preeminent intelligence agency in North America, even over some US agencies. It was a perennial thorn in the side of Herbert Hoover and the FBI.

The jacket notes call this book “an extraordinary tale of deceit, double-dealing, and moral ambiguity – all in the name of victory.” Stephenson was running a dirty tricks, propoganda, and counter-intelligence operation to try to combat isolationists in America who would prevent America entering the War. Spying on your allies on the allies’ own turf is unconscienable, and Stephenson would probably have been shut down but for the support he had from some powerful American political figures. One criticism I have of this book is that it does not make all of the relationships clear. Everything is very murky, though these were murky times.

The author does a stellar job of portraying the times. She describes many of the Washington hostesses, politicians, tycoons, and journalists with many of their idiosyncrasies. If you like society insider news and gossip you will like this book and will likely recognize many big names of the forties.

Roald Dahl quickly ingratiated himself in society and became many hostesses’ choice to round out the numbers at table. He was outspoken and immoderate, however and also quickly stepped over an invisible diplomatic line with the Ambassador and the Air Chief Marshall. He was sent home in disgrace, but was rapidly reinstated after he persuaded the BSC to take him on officially. He continued to be an air attache in Washington, this time with a promotion, but now he was covertly working alongside actors, writers, and playboys, such as Ian Fleming, Noel Coward, and Leslie Howard, to plant gossip to influence American politics and to gather intelligence on what America thought about the War and post-war economics.

These were the times that Ian Fleming drew on in his creation of James Bond. The co-conspirators called themselves “The Baker Street Irregulars,” after the band of urchins who gathered intelligence for Sherlock Holmes in the stories of Conan Doyle. They were playing a game, with potentially very serious outcomes. Dahl became a lover to Clare Boothe Luce, the congresswoman, a friend to Eleanor Roosevelt, and like a son to Drew Pearson, the columnist and to Charles Marsh the newspaper tycoon. I’m not sure, however that Jennet Conant ever is able to show a concrete outcome for the British from all these relationships. Perhaps it was all smoke and mirrors? I am sure you will have fun reading the book to find out for yourself! Find this book in our catalog.

Other similar books you might like:
In Secret Service by Mitch Silver. Find this book in our catalog. This is a novel about how Amy Greenberg, an American who is summoned to Ireland to claim an inheritance. It turns out to be a manuscript written by Ian Fleming about his covert work before and during the War, involving the abdication of Edward VIII and his marriage to Wallis Warfield Simpson.
Roosevelt’s secret war : FDR and World War II espionage by Joseph E. Persico. Find this book in our cataolg.
Roosevelt and Churchill : men of secrets by David Stafford. Find this book in our catalog.

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