The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington
Contributor: C. Peter Chen
Review Date: 7 May 2014
In 1940, while flying his fighter aircraft from Libya to Egypt, Roald Dahl got lost, ran out of fuel, and crash landed. Suffering severe injuries from this crash, his flying career would end in the following year. Invalided from front line service, he was made an assistant air attaché in the British Embassy in Washington, DC, United States, where he began the two careers both of which would leave his name in history. In the United States, he would become a spy with the British Security Coordination (part of the famed MI6) who, among other tasks, spread pro-war propaganda during the isolationist period of the US and secretly funnel back to Britain the secret American post-war plans that aimed to dominate global air travel. Meanwhile, he began to write, although it would take a long time before works such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach would be completed.
In Irregulars, author Jennet Conant focused on Dahl's career as a spy in the capital of the United States. Although having known some basics about British operatives in the United States, I found myself learning quite a bit about the missions conducted by the British Security Coordination. The author's research through personal papers and diaries gave her the material to set up the backdrop to war time Washington, which, even without the presence of spies, was already mired in intrigue. While the story of the counterfeit German map of the post-war Americas was well known, the author detailed many others that proved to be rather interesting, reminding me that while Britain and US were close allies, intelligence and counter-intelligence agencies think and operate with a totally different mindset. Conant introduced diversions generously in this book, which had their pros and cons; while most of them were very interesting trivia ("The Gremlins", Lyndon B. Johnson, and Ian Fleming, to name a few), I could also complain that the focus of the book too often drifted far away from the main topic of the book, the spy ring, dare I say venturing into the realm of celebrity gossip magazines, filling pages upon pages with stories of affairs and seductions that had little to do with history.
I had reviewed this title in its audio book format. Although Conant was an American author, Simon Prebble's reading of the book, with his British accent, gave it a nice touch as the book was a biography of a Royal Air Force pilot turned MI6 operative. His reading was clear, with good pacing.
Overall I found The Irregulars interesting, but I would have to note that the very frequent diversions into the social scene was simply too much for me at times. A good candidate for borrowing from your local free public library, perhaps.
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Thomas Dodd, late 1945