The Irregulars by Jennet Conant Simon & Schuster, HK$224 In the preface to his memoir, Boy (1983), Roald Dahl declares, 'This is not an autobiography.' The children's author said he refused to write such a thing because it would be 'full of all sorts of boring details'. In The Irregulars, Jennet Conant reveals that Dahl was afraid of divulging too much, but that he was never at risk of boring his readership in doing so. Her compelling book brings to light Dahl's secret past as an undercover agent at the British embassy in Washington, DC, from 1943 to 1946. In 1940, an increasingly desperate British government under threat of German invasion began a secret propaganda campaign to draw the US into the war, and it was the launch of his writing career that brought Dahl into the intelligence community. Dahl had been posted to Washington in 1941 as an RAF attache after being injured in a crash in the Sahara, but he first caught the spooks' attention with 'Shot Down Over Libya', a 1942 piece for the Saturday Evening Post. It was an overwrought fictionalisation of his crash, but the story won him high praise within the intelligence bureaucracy; it was exactly the kind of bluntly patriotic fare they wanted. Dahl also quickly befriended Texan newspaper magnate Charles Marsh and charmed his way into his inner circle of powerful friends, which included vice-president Henry A. Wallace. He hobnobbed with industrialists, senators and diplomats, and in 1943 even spent the July 4 weekend with the Roosevelts. It was their acquisition of friends in high places that made famous writers ideal spies. When Dahl was made a full member of the British Security Co-ordination Agency in 1943, his fellow agents included Noel Coward and Ian Fleming. Dahl's intelligence role did not interfere with his social life so much as comprise it. Dahl passed along titbits about domestic politics and gathered information to use against US isolationists. In one instance, he was required to seduce Republican congresswoman Clare Booth-Luce; he undertook the assignment with vigour but later complained of her incredible stamina. Conant makes good use of a wide range of primary sources, including memos, diaries, a newly uncovered cache of Dahl's private correspondence and government documents. She writes in a chatty style that lends the book energy but also a tendency towards digression. Nonetheless, she subjects Dahl to proper scrutiny, revealing him as a man obsessed with sexual conquest and motivated by a dispassionate misogyny. Conant's history is beset by a certain breeziness, but she does an excellent job of bringing Dahl's past to light. The result is a fascinating study that provides a rare insight into the baroque and libidinal world of second world war espionage and the traces it left on the imagination of a young writer.