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The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington Hardcover – 20 Oct 2008

3.6 out of 5 stars 8 customer reviews

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster; 1st Simon & Schuster Hardcover Ed edition (20 Oct. 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0743294580
  • ISBN-13: 978-0743294584
  • Product Dimensions: 24.1 x 16.8 x 3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 706,459 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description


"Jennet Conant's new book is pure pleasure. Immensely intelligent and entertaining, with a narrative so strongly fashioned it reads, and compels, like the best fiction. All the complexities of friends spying on friends, yet as good a weekend companion as you'll find this year." -- Alan Furst, author of "The Spies of Warsaw"

About the Author

Jennet Conant's profiles have appeared in Vanity Fair, Esquire, GQ, Newsweek, and The New York Times. She was given unrestricted access to Loomis' and Conant's papers, as well as to previously unpublished letters and documents, and she interviewed Loomis' many family members, friends, and colleagues. The granddaughter and grand niece of two of the scientists from the Tuxedo Park community, she is a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and Columbia University's School of Journalism. She lives in New York City and Sag Harbor with her husband, "60 Minutes" correspondent Steve Kroft, and their son.

Customer Reviews

3.6 out of 5 stars
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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
During World War II, Britain dispatched many presentable young men to argue its case to America, to pick up insights, to grab secrets that could be used, and to influence American decisions. Where several books have emphasized the spymaster behind these efforts, Canadian William Stephenson, this book looks at the young men exercising their influence in Washington, D.C. Roald Dahl (author of James and the Giant Peach and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) was one of the most effective, but his peers also included Ian Fleming (author of the James Bond books) and David Ogilvy (of advertising fame . . . thinking Hathaway shirts).

Ms. Conant writes about these young men and those they seduced (men into sharing secrets and women often into their boudoirs) in a way that seems like today's gossip, foibles and all. What makes those details interesting is that they often involve prominent Americans like President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt, Vice President Henry Wallace, up-and-comer Lyndon Johnson, and influential reporters and columnists. You will probably be especially interested to learn about Charles Edward Marsh, newspaper magnate, trophy wife hunter, and sponsor for promising young men (including Dahl and Johnson).

The book's main weakness is that it seems puffed up a bit to include more gossipy tidbits than are necessary for the story, but which might titillate readers. On the other hand, Ms. Conant resists falling in love with her subjects and writes candidly about their weaknesses, pains, failings, and disappointments.

To me the most interesting parts of the book came where it became transparent that President Roosevelt was using the British spies to help achieve his goals while keeping his own counsel.
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Format: Hardcover
The subject of this interesting book, which I read through to the end, is ostensibly espionage. The spies though, which included not only Dahl but also Ian Fleming and Noel Coward, flit through the narrative rather like moths in the background. Because their activities are only dimly lit (and none seems to fly close enough to the flame to get burned), one gets only occasional glimpses of the precise nature of what they actually did (which may indicate their effectiveness as spies). Dahl's own character, which seems to hover between British Public Schoolboy humor and Nordic angst, remains as elusive as does the account of his espionage.

The book, however, provides insight on behind-the-scenes politics of wartime Washington. I was particularly fascinated reading about those politicians whose names I remember hearing on the radio (or my parents discussing) but to which I never paid much attention as a child. It was especially interesting to read about Roosevelt at his Hyde Park estate in New York, and the early ascent of Lyndon Johnson. It was also interesting to read that the president then had as much opposition as the president now. Things do not seem to change much in politics.

In her introduction, the author notes that "spies are notoriously unreliable narrators." Perhaps this is why the substance of the book remains elusive and the title seems misleading. I think it would have been better titled: "Roald Dahl in Wartime Washington." Then some readers, who have criticized the book, would not have been expecting revelations of espionage that never materialize.

I would recommend this book, which is subtly footnoted (The quotes are cited by page number at the back of the book.) and has a respectable bibliography, to anyone who is interested in the Washington scene of the 1940s. Since I am a layman and not an American Historian, I cannot comment on the reliability of the narrative, but I can say that I found it quite compelling.
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Format: Hardcover
"The Irregulars," comes to us as a thoroughly, even exhaustively researched glimpse at a critical moment in British, and American, history. It's authored by Jennet Conant, journalist who has written profiles for "Vanity Fair," "Esquire," "GQ,""Newsweek," and "The New York Times," and author of the bestselling Tuxedo Park: A Wall Street Tycoon and the Secret Palace of Science That Changed the Course of World War II; and 109 East Palace: Robert Oppenheimer and the Secret City of Los Alamos. She tackles the fraught years prior to America's entry into World War II, when the British were forced to fight the German Third Reich on their own; the intense war years that followed; and the no less intense immediate postwar years of the two countries.

Conant does this by focusing on Washington, D.C. during the years when Franklin Delano Roosevelt was U.S. President, and Winston Churchill was British Prime Minister. She also noticeably focuses on celebrated British author Roald Dahl; not that he's not worthy of attention, of course, but it's not clear that he should be the centerpiece of this book. It may be that she simply had access to a cache of his previously unseen materials.

During the prewar period, the British, standing alone against the Nazi war machine, sorely needed American help, and so, with FDR's tacit permission, came up with a desperate scheme, putting in place a ring of British spies in America.
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