three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
37-Nov-Dec-2008
user_rating: 
0
Award Year: 
0

A-The IrregularsJennet Conant is the author of Tuxedo Park and 109 East Palace, both of which also tell neglected stories of World War II-era America.

The Topic: In one of the funnier episodes of The X-Files, one of the masterminds of the show’s impenetrable Conspiracy attempts to sell the story of his life to a pulp fiction magazine, only to have the plot rejected as hopelessly unrealistic. Jennet Conant’s story is nearly the reverse: a group of British spies and informants of middling importance eventually become some of Britain’s best-known authors, including not only Roald Dahl but also Ian Fleming (of James Bond fame) and playwright Noel Coward. While the importance of their work in Washington was debatable, Dahl and the other "Baker Street Irregulars" did live a life worthy of Fleming’s creation, sipping martinis with the president and bedding influential women (all for the sake of the cause, of course). In this group portrait, Conant also portrays a high-society Washington that is just as much a character as Dahl and his circle.
Simon & Schuster. 390 pages. $27.95. ISBN : 0743294580

Milwaukee Jrnl-Sentinel 4 of 5 Stars
"Wartime Washington … was a place and time like no other, rich in atmosphere, dense in human drama. … The Irregulars is a thoroughly enjoyable book, polished and inconsequential in the best ways." David Walton

Chicago Sun-Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Jennet Conant … has found a wonderfully intriguing story to build her new book around—that of one ally actively spying on the citizens of another while a guest in their country, and one that includes a roster of names readers know from activities other than spying. … Her chapter dealing with the lives of the spies after the war seems a bit rushed, while her failure to interview Dahl’s second wife or his children leaves a bit of a hole." Joanne Collings

Christian Science Monitor 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Conant … has a gift for writing large stories based on the activities of seemingly minor figures. Here she deserves credit for fresh angles and insights, despite having bitten off a tad more than she can chew." Carlo Wolff

Oregonian 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Dahl’s wartime years were a minor chapter in a life encompassing The New Yorker, Hollywood screenwriting and such delights as James and the Giant Peach. But The Irregulars gives unexpected insight into an obscure period that he drew upon in his darkly humorous work." Paul Collins

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"[I]f the part of the story Conant tells is comparatively minor, it is interesting all the same—especially for its high Washington gossip quotient—and Conant tells it well. … 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." Jonathan Yardley

Boston Globe 3 of 5 Stars
"The Irregulars will appeal to the reader interested in the subtleties of World War II spycraft as practiced by Britain on her chief ally, the social swirl of wartime Washington, Dahl’s writing and his amorous adventures, or new vignettes about some of the famous old warhorses of American politics and letters, circa 1942. But the general reader might consider something that Conant writes: ‘When all was said and done, intelligence work was for the most part fairly prosaic and involved a lot of tedious paperwork and shuttling back and forth between the various agencies.’" William Martin

Wall Street Journal 3 of 5 Stars
"The problem, of course, is whether it amounted to anything, and the answer is probably not. … [I]t is unlikely that anyone who mattered in Washington had any doubt that the small army of enchanting officers attached to the British Embassy were engaged in anything other than gentlemen’s espionage." Philip Terzian

Critical Summary

What critics praised most in Jennet Conant’s The Irregulars is the quality that is becoming the author’s signature knack: her ability to show how a seemingly obscure group of characters personifies the mood of a time and place and exercises more influence than one might expect. However, the same reviewers indicated that the later careers of Dahl and his cohorts, as well as the relative insignificance of their activities in the annals of espionage, led to some cognitive dissonance in The Irregulars, which is filled with entertaining details but makes little case for the group’s political and strategic importance during the war. Nevertheless, no one faulted Conant’s expert writing or research, and everyone indicated that The Irregulars will be very enjoyable for the right kind of reader.