The Fantasic Mr. Dahl: Jennet Conant’s ‘The Irregulars’
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Early on in Ian Fleming’s first novel, “Casino Royale,” an aspiring secret agent called James Bond puts a bullet into a Japanese clerk during a raid on Rockefeller Center. Like many such thrilling incidents in fiction, it is an implausible moment with roots in an authentic event. Fleming was ex-Naval Intelligence, and in 1941 was part of a team that really did break into the Japanese consular offices at Rockefeller Center, to steal (without shooting anyone) some cipher books and coding manuals.
Fleming was one of many British agents sent to America in the early years of World War II. Their express (though covert) aim was to inspire fervent American backing in the fight against Hitler. Apart from Fleming, a remarkable roll call of British talent was recruited: C.S. Forester, Isaiah Berlin, Noël Coward, and David Ogilvy (founder of Ogilvy and Mather) were all invited to join the party. The group was named the Irregulars, after Arthur Conan Doyle’s Baker Street part-timers, and they were well camouflaged by their Bohemian reputations. Their leader was a brilliant, icy businessman and spymaster by the name of William Stephenson — code name, Intrepid.
One of the most successful members of the group, and the subject of “The Irregulars” (Simon & Schuster, 390 pages, $27), Jennet Conant’s intriguing new narrative, was Roald Dahl. He was not yet a fêted children’s author, and he had not yet developed the lovable, avuncular persona that made him such a terrific bedtime storyteller. (He had also not yet angered so many with his odious comments on Israel and anti-Semitism.) On the contrary, his was one of those action-packed Empire lives that still wink up from the obituary columns. Born to Norwegians in Britain, when war broke out, he joined the Royal Air Force. Dahl trained on Tiger Moths in Kenya (“marvellous fun”) and was soon up against it in Greece, where a thousand German planes faced only 18 Hurricanes — too few even for the Few. A fearful crash in the Sahara left him hurt, grounded, and posted to Canada. To those who know him only as the author of “James and the Giant Peach,” it may come as a surprise to learn that he then became a swaggering sleuth.
He was handsome, tall (6-foot-5), witty, flirtatious, and a wounded British flying ace — an alluring combination that made him a dashing addition to the social scene. He was also an author: His book on RAF mishaps, “The Gremlins,” was a Disney-fostered success and a terrific calling card. He rapidly befriended the Texan newspaper magnate Charles Marsh, and joined his regular salon of “cabinet members, senators, financiers and important journalists.” Dahl even managed to make himself a popular weekend guest of the Roosevelts (Eleanor simply loved those Gremlins).
There was a good deal of top-grade tittle-tattle available to such a man, and Dahl took faithful notes and palmed them, with discreet skill, to his superiors. He gathered information on American isolationists and business lobbyists who wanted to keep America out of the war (and who argued that God could save the King if he so desired), and helped smear them as Nazi sympathizers. He even passed on reports of American plans to put a man on the moon, which were roundly laughed at in London.
It was not, in the context of a world locked in bitter war, the most taxing assignment, and Dahl made the most of it. He lived beyond his means in a world of head-turning VIPs and beautiful escorts. “I think he slept with every woman on the East and West coasts that had more than fifty thousand dollars a year,” remarked Marsh’s daughter. And if he felt like a drink, why, maybe Hemingway was free.
Ms. Conant’s account is calm and superbly-informed. She has browsed an enviable trove of private papers and records — “carefully preserved minutes, memos, notes, files and assorted correspondence” — the very nature of which suggests a bygone age, a time before deleted e-mails, recycled text messages, and unrecorded phone calls. But drifting through these wisps comes the silhouette of a great story — a keen thread of love-hate running both ways across the Atlantic. In war, nations spy on their friends as keenly as their enemies, and when Churchill hears, through Dahl, that America aims to seize air supremacy in the postwar world (and is also keen to promote the “liquidation” of the British Empire), he endures a sleepless night or two.
Ms. Conant is wise to the sense that she is dealing with a bunch of professional liars, and that their own accounts are not reliable. But she perhaps misses an opportunity to have more fun with the glamour-tipped social parade she has uncovered. It is a giddy P.G. Wodehouse universe, in which who you know matters more than what you know, and where a fellow needs to be ready, after dinner, to play high-stakes bridge — my railroad against your shipping line.
There is little sense that what counts is the push-and-pull of wider movements. Politics did not yet revere opinion polls, and diplomacy was still a great game between a club of ambitious people who bumped into one another at parties. The figures that flit through these pages tend to be can-opener moguls, airline tycoons, oil pioneers, international yachtsmen, movie stars, or Horlicks heiresses. So if Britain wanted to influence America, the urgent thing was to catch President Roosevelt at cocktail hour, after he had downed a “couple of old-fashioneds.” Who better for such a task than an up-and-coming author?
The book ends, like many great stories, in tears: The spy ring fizzles out after failing to warn London about the prompt cancellation of lend-lease (several ships already at sea were recalled), and the creation of a new Central Intelligence. Dahl returns to London dazed — “just one more wounded Battle of Britain pilot.” There was trauma as well as triumph in his future, and Ms. Conant gives us a sharp outline of his haunting ill luck (a son crushed by a taxi, a daughter killed by the measles). It is a bracing tale.
In retrospect, it seems inevitable that Dahl was inspired by his cloak-and-dagger past to spin stories for a living — just like Fleming. But one could speculate further that the Willy Wonka who welcomes Charlie to his chocolate factory is a fairy-tale version of Charles Marsh himself, the impresario who welcomed Dahl into a fantasy world dripping with delicious treats. It was not the kind of work designed to make Dahl popular with his suffering compatriots back home — there was too much champagne — but it was, as creative writing courses go, almost perfect.
Mr. Winder, the author of four books, was literary editor of the Independent and deputy editor of Granta.