Summary and book reviews of The Irregulars by Jennet Conant

The Irregulars

Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington

By Jennet Conant

The Irregulars

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Book Summary

When Roald Dahl, a dashing young wounded RAF pilot, took up his post at the British Embassy in Washington in 1942, his assignment was to use his good looks, wit, and considerable charm to gain access to the most powerful figures in American political life. A patriot eager to do his part to save his country from a Nazi invasion, he invaded the upper reaches of the U.S. government and Georgetown society, winning over First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and her husband, Franklin; befriending wartime leaders from Henry Wallace to Henry Morgenthau; and seducing the glamorous freshman congresswoman Clare Boothe Luce.

Dahl would soon be caught up in a complex web of deception masterminded by William Stephenson, aka Intrepid, Churchill's legendary spy chief, who, with President Roosevelt's tacit permission, mounted a secret campaign of propaganda and political subversion to weaken American isolationist forces, bring the country into the war against Germany, and influence U.S. policy in favor of England. Known as the British Security Coordination (BSC) -- though the initiated preferred to think of themselves as the Baker Street Irregulars in honor of the amateurs who aided Sherlock Holmes -- these audacious agents planted British propaganda in American newspapers and radio programs, covertly influenced leading journalists -- including Drew Pearson, Walter Winchell, and Walter Lippmann -- harassed prominent isolationists and anti-New Dealers, and plotted against American corporations that did business with the Third Reich.

In an account better than spy fiction, Jennet Conant shows Dahl progressing from reluctant diplomat to sly man-about-town, parlaying his morale-boosting wartime propaganda work into a successful career as an author, which leads to his entrée into the Roosevelt White House and Hyde Park and initiation into British intelligence's elite dirty tricks squad, all in less than three years. He and his colorful coconspirators -- David Ogilvy, Ian Fleming, and Ivar Bryce, recruited more for their imagination and dramatic flair than any experience in the spy business -- gossiped, bugged, and often hilariously bungled their way across Washington, doing their best to carry out their cloak-and-dagger assignments, support the fledgling American intelligence agency (the OSS), and see that Roosevelt was elected to an unprecedented fourth term.

It is an extraordinary tale of deceit, double-dealing, and moral ambiguity -- all in the name of victory. Richly detailed and meticulously researched, Conant's compelling narrative draws on never-before-seen wartime letters, diaries, and interviews and provides a rare, and remarkably candid, insider's view of the counterintelligence game during the tumultuous days of World War II.

1

THE USUAL DRILL

"Don't you think that you or some other regular officer should be doing this job?"

"We've all got our hands full," the Captain said.

-- Roald Dahl, Going Solo


It was an unseasonably warm spring evening in 1942, and between the cherry blossoms and soldiers in uniform, brightly lit shopwindows and partly darkened government buildings, wartime Washington was a strange sight. Four months had passed since the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The grim task of mobilization had clearly begun, and the streets were riddled with Quonset huts and hastily constructed plywood office complexes. But these were the only outward signs of conflict. In the eyes of a newly arrived Englishman, life in the capital appeared almost normal. Back in London, there was not a light to be seen in the bomb-shattered streets, where blackout shades were kept drawn against the nightly air attacks, and people fumbled home from work in the permanent gloom. The Battle of Britain...

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Reviews

BookBrowse

Conant's spirited account brings all these characters and their wartime intrigue to scintillating life as she drops names and exposes more extramarital affairs among the nation's powerbrokers than today's religious right wingers could shake a "shame-on-you stick" at.   (Reviewed by Donna Chavez).

Full Review Members Only (994 words).

Media Reviews
Author Blurb Alan Furst
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.

Kirkus Reviews

Entertaining social history that also reveals a little-known aspect of an important literary figure's life.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. [A] thoroughly engrossing story, one Conant tells exceptionally well.

Library Journal

With this excellent history of personalities and politics during World War II, Conant adds successfully to her previous books that have made vivid the war's background players. Highly recommended.

The Washington Post - Jonathan Yardley

Over the span of a 74-year life, Dahl's World War II service was merely an extended episode, but Jennet Conant has made an entertaining and instructive story out of it.

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Beyond the Book

Britain & The USA in World War II
Very often a parent gives life to a rebellious child and the two of them engage in a lifelong love-hate relationship - until, for health or other reasons, that parent needs help. At that point the prodigal child often returns to step in at the parent's hour of need; though not always without a little coaxing. Such was the case with Britain and the United States at the outset of World War II.

America had a large population of Anglophobes and isolationists due a rocky history between the two nations that began with the Boston Tea Party. However, when Europe, including Britain, was faced with almost certain annihilation at the hands of Hitler's troops, British Prime Minister Winston ...

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