The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington
by Jennet Conant
(Simon & Schuster, $27.95)

The women of Washington, D.C., may never have met a man as irresistible as Roald Dahl, says author Jennet Conant. In 1942, two decades before Charlie and the Chocolate Factory affirmed his lasting place in literature, Dahl was a dashing British war veteran recruited into a British spy ring—in part because of his talent for coaxing pillow talk out of the city’s most well-connected women. Dahl soon counted among his conquests heiress Millicent Rogers and a rumored mistress of Gen. Dwight Eisenhower. But his prize catch was the outspoken isolationist Clare Booth Luce. “It’s a great assignment, but I just can’t go on,” he complained to Britain’s ambassador after an exhausting three-night stand with the married congresswoman. Do it, Dahl was advised, “for England.”

Dahl can’t be given credit for charming the United States into war, said Evan Thomas in Newsweek. He didn’t arrive in D.C. until four months after Pearl Harbor—a full year after his outfit pulled off their biggest coup by putting into President Franklin Roosevelt’s hands a forged map that ostensibly revealed Adolf Hitler’s plans for conquering South and Central America. But along with fellow “Baker Street Irregulars” Ian Fleming and Noël Coward, Dahl “effectively wooed and spied upon” the U.S. press and political establishment throughout the Allies’ war effort. Conant’s “lively new history” isn’t the first book to describe the group’s chicanery. By focusing on Dahl, however, Conant delivers an amusing portrait of how the ring took advantage of an infatuation among America’s ruling class for all things British.

Dahl performed almost as effectively in the city’s drawing rooms as in its bedrooms, said Jonathan Yardley in The Washington Post. One of The Irregulars’ chief contributions is to introduce today’s readers to Texas newspaper tycoon Charles Marsh, a discreet power broker who hosted Dahl and Vice President Henry Wallace for regular afternoon cocktails. During Dahl’s Washington adventure, he did secure for Britain “several useful intelligence tidbits,” said Tony Allen-Mills in the London Times. “Perhaps more significantly,” though, he also discovered—with the publication of his first short story—the talent that would earn him immortality.