Jennet Conant's recent book The Irregulars is the perfect Washington summer read: it's a breezy society tale about British spying on America before and during World War II, which Franklin Roosevelt tacitly approved, by a ragtag group of future literary stars, including Ian Fleming and his friend Roald Dahl.
Dahl was a wounded pilot who'd sustained injuries in an RAF campaign, which gave him a perfect cover; his tall, handsome frame, ready wit, and instinct for the kill made him a willing and able bedroom operative, loosed on Republican doyennes and faithfully reporting everything he heard to his political masters. Conant easily evokes wartime Washington society with all its claustrophobic closeness, where the top intellectuals all knew one another, and knew implicitly that no one was to be trusted, no chatter went unheard, but all was more or less idle: everyone lucky enough to serve in Washington was far from all enemy lines and would likely remain so.
Dahl seems alternately to have chafed and blossomed under his enforced ennui, seducing all the women he could find, learning Washington politics from his patron and mentor Charles Marsh, reporting everything he heard to his handlers, and accidentally discovering his talents as a fiction writer. Unfortunately, while the tradecraft and espionage strategy are interesting to read, and the sex is an entertaining diversion, Conant does very little to connect the dots of how the Roald Dahl she uncovers turned into the Roald Dahl we all know. She shows him beginning to achieve success as a writer, but she doesn't really ever explain how the Dahl who spied on America became the Dahl who wrote about friendly giants, giant peaches, chocolate factories, and witches.
The book plods into its second half and loses steam, as the Washington spywork has succeeded in bringing America into the war and there's less the Washingtonians can accomplish. Conant does a cursory examination of Roald Dahl's later years, but with little of the wit or spark she brought to the war years. The Dahl of her telling is callous, inscrutably loyal to country but little else, a directionless man who discovers he likes being famous and is good at writing. The problem is that he's so famous that any narrative about his life that doesn't explain how he became our Roald Dahl, the world's most scrumdiddlyumptious storyteller, feels half-finished.
But it's a fun story all the same, well-written and well-researched. It is a good summer read. It's just not any more than that.