Reading The Irregulars, Jennet Conant's wonderfully rendered history of British spy jinks in Washington, D.C., during World War II, my one regret was that Robert Altman, that great director of ensemble casts and vintage scenes, wasn't still alive. Wartime Washington, like Altman's Nashville, McCabe and Mrs. Miller's wild West, or the high and low of Gosford Park, was a place and time like no other.
Here's a story of espionage that not only anticipates James Bond but includes among its main characters Bond's creator, Ian Fleming, and a number of incidents that figured in the Bond novels.
The story of the British spies in Washington and their chief, William Stevenson, the celebrated Man Called Intrepid, has been many times told by its participants, many later well-known writers. Conant focuses on Roald Dahl (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), a 6-foot-6 invalided pilot sent to ingratiate himself among prominent people, something Dahl did very well, especially with American women. There unfolds a merry tale of money, powers and politics that includes the soon-to-be-dumped Vice President Henry Wallace; playwright Clare Boothe Luce, then a member of Congress and avid lover of Dahl's; up-and-coming member of Congress Lyndon B. Johnson; columnist Drew Pearson; and dozens more. Dahl moved easily among Washington society, even into the White House after he befriended Eleanor Roosevelt.
The Irregulars is a thoroughly enjoyable book, polished and inconsequential in the best ways. Nothing very crucial is determined by these boy spies, these "Baker Street Irregulars." Yet at the same time, the times were desperate, especially for the British, and much depended upon maintaining American good will and support.
Especially enjoyable is the unabridged audiobook of this title, read with full British aplomb and period flavor by Simon Prebble.
David Walton is a writer in Pittsburgh.