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The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington Hardcover – September 9, 2008

3.7 out of 5 stars 107 customer reviews

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Amazon Best of the Month, September 2008: Long before Willy Wonka sent out those five Golden Tickets, Roald Dahl lived a life that was more James Bond than James and the Giant Peach. After blinding headaches cut short his distinguished career as a Royal Air Force fighter pilot, Dahl became part of an elite group of British spies working against the United States' neutrality at the onset of World War II. The Irregulars is a brilliant profile of Dahl's lesser-known profession, embracing a real-life storyline of suave debauchery, clandestine motives, and afternoon cocktails. If this sounds oddly familiar, it's no coincidence: both Ian Fleming (the creator of 007) and Bill Stephenson (the legendary spymaster rumored to be the inspiration for Bond) were members of the same outfit. Although "Dahl...Roald Dahl" doesn't quite carry the same debonair ring, there is no discrediting this fascinating look at the British author's covert service to the Allied cause during WWII. --Dave Callanan

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. What could be more intriguing than the young writer Roald Dahl—destined to create such classics as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory—assigned by His Majesty's Government to Washington, D.C., as a diplomat in the spring of 1942, charged with a secret mission? Dahl's brief was to gather intelligence about America's isolationist circles (indeed, he infiltrated the infatuated Claire Boothe Luce in more ways than one) and propagandize for prompt American entry into the European war. The United States had technically been at war with Germany since December 1941. However, the U.S.'s attention was focused mainly on the Pacific theater—and such pro-German political figures as Luce and Charles Lindbergh meant to keep it that way. Dahl's most important job was to influence public opinion generally and the opinions of Washington's powerful specifically. As bestselling author Conant (Tuxedo Park) shows in her eloquent narrative, Dahl's intriguing coconspirators included future advertising legend David Ogilvy and future spy novelist Ian Fleming. Most fascinating, though, is Dahl's relationship with the great British spymaster William Stephenson, otherwise known as Intrepid. This all boils down to a thoroughly engrossing story, one Conant tells exceptionally well.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster; 1st Simon & Schuster Hardcover Ed edition (September 9, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0743294580
  • ISBN-13: 978-0743294584
  • Product Dimensions: 9.5 x 6.6 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (107 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #989,511 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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By Stephanie De Pue VINE VOICE on October 18, 2008
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
"The Irregulars," comes to us as a thoroughly, even exhaustively researched glimpse at a critical moment in British, and American, history. It's authored by Jennet Conant, journalist who has written profiles for "Vanity Fair," "Esquire," "GQ,""Newsweek," and "The New York Times," and author of the bestselling Tuxedo Park : A Wall Street Tycoon and the Secret Palace of Science That Changed the Course of World War II; and 109 East Palace: Robert Oppenheimer and the Secret City of Los Alamos. She tackles the fraught years prior to America's entry into World War II, when the British were forced to fight the German Third Reich on their own; the intense war years that followed; and the no less intense immediate postwar years of the two countries.

Conant does this by focusing on Washington, D.C. during the years when Franklin Delano Roosevelt was U.S. President, and Winston Churchill was British Prime Minister. She also noticeably focuses on celebrated British author Roald Dahl; not that he's not worthy of attention, of course, but it's not clear that he should be the centerpiece of this book. It may be that she simply had access to a cache of his previously unseen materials.

During the prewar period, the British, standing alone against the Nazi war machine, desperately needed American help, and so, with FDR's tacit permission, came up with a desperate scheme, putting in place a ring of British spies in America.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
"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 had it all; a wounded RAF pilot who had the intellect, grace and charm to open doors that would typically be shut to even the biggest political insiders.

And as author Jennet Conant writes in this biography of Dahl, the friends he had in high places ultimately shaped the policies of the United States in World War II and in the opening salvos of the Cold War, but with a gentle push or - oftentimes - a hard shove into a specific direction by British agents.

Dahl was a key player in a British spy ring in Washington, D.C., which found him striding confidently into the White House halls of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt administration and counting on such key players as FDR, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Henry Wallace and Henry Morgentheau, Jr., as vital colleagues.

Starting in 1942, Dahl became entwined in a wide web of intrigue designed by Sir William "Intrepid" Stevenson to destroy brick-by-brick the isolationist movement in the U.S. and shape the political relations between the two nations in the war against Nazi Germany. Some of Dahl's work was done with the approval of FDR.

Important areas of this campaign included the use of influential journalists - Walter Winchell, Drew Pearson - and other media members to tell the story of cooperation and a plot against U.S. corporations that retained cozy relations with the Nazis.

The canvas of the post-war landscape included Dahl's 1946 proposal of an American-English Secret Service, writes Conant. But as a new type of war with the Soviet Union turned frigid, there was personal turmoil for spies like Dahl who came in from the cold.
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Format: Paperback
I found this book to be somewhat tedious. Roald Dahl seems to go from one "affair" to another. Both Churchill and FDR seem to be trying to use him for their own ends. He seems to have found a way to "do his patriotic duty" by flipping from one bed or party to the next. Heck of a way to spend the war.

I never found myself sufficiently engaged to "like" the title character. (I've read other books about really rotten people who, I'm ashamed to say but credit the author, I somewhat "liked" by the end of the book. This is not one of those books.) After the first hundred pages, I really had to force myself to continue.

There is some good background information. If the reader had never been exposed to the "chess game" Winnie and FDR were playing with each other, he'd learn something of it here. I already knew that LBJ was a womanizing scoundrel, but it was nice to see it confirmed.

If you enjoy gossip columns, I suppose you'll like this. I don't/didn't.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I actually think this is a great book in many ways -- I admire how Jennet Conant presents such an incredible catalog of factoids in a readable format that does shed much needed light on the British efforts at espionage and counter-espionage against its own ally during wartime. What concerns me, though, is that the book presents itself as something it isn't -- an insight into Dahl's personality and activities as a "spy" in an MI6 subsidiary tasked with "black" ops and "dirty work."

While an amazing read, this book is REALLY a loosely-tied collection of mini-bios of those with whom Dahl associated himself, his socio-political "circle" in wartime D.C., or, in short, those he "reported" on -- essentially passing on tons of tidbits of gossip, insights on their personal dispositions on various matters, etc., all to be sifted through by his boss William Stephenson's BSC office in Manhattan.

The author probably had little input into the cover art for her book, but said cover serves as an apt metaphor of misdirection: under the buzz-word-filled title words "Dahl," "British Spy Ring," "Wartime Washington," the picture has the U.S. capitol as a backdrop, with an inset of a cropped photo of Dahl. Of course, the crop actually came from a photo of Dahl escorting Hemingway through wartime LONDON, but no matter, apparently, as misdirection is an aptly developed theme....

I don't mean to sound snide, for this truly is a book I'm glad to have read; I simply don't like to be misled into picking a book for the wrong reasons, no matter how good it turns out to be.
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