"THE IRREGULARS: ROALD DAHL AND THE BRITISH SPY RING IN WARTIME WASHINGTON," by Jennet Conant, Simon & Schuster, 416 pages, $27.95

Best-selling author Roald Dahl is best known for his imaginative books such as "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," "James and the Giant Peach" and "Matilda." But when he first set out to make his way in the world, writing classic tales for children was nowhere on his agenda.

Becoming a spy for the British government during World War II was not part of his plan, either, but it was a calling he happily accepted.

"The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington," by Jennet Conant, author of "Tuxedo Park," looks at how a wounded Royal Air Force pilot gained entrance to and worked within British Security Coordination.

After finishing preparatory school, Dahl moved to East Africa to work for the Shell Oil Co. When England declared war on Germany in September 1939, Dahl enlisted in the Royal Air Force.

Less than three years and a couple of crashes later, he found himself posted to Washington, D.C., trying to drum up support for the war effort. Almost immediately, Dahl became bored with life as an assistant air attache for the British Embassy.

Always one to be regarded as "unpredictable," Dahl's insubordination started to catch up with him, and after disciplinary action, Dahl decided he would have to find something that would make him an invaluable asset serving in America.

While Dahl's rebellious nature got him into scrapes at the embassy, it endeared him to Americans who thought of him as a kindred spirit, and put him in the perfect position for espionage.

"After nosing around a bit," Dahl found what he was looking for: the BSC. Dubbed the "Baker Street Irregulars" — after Sherlock Holmes' amateur helpers — members of the agency included author Ian Fleming, playboy Ivar Bryce and playwright Noel Coward.

Dahl's natural charm and striking good looks gained him access to some of the most influential people in Washington during that time. Among those who took him under their collective wings were Texas oilman Charles Marsh and Vice President Henry Wallace. Once inside this circle, Dahl became connected to columnists Drew Pearson, Walter Lippmann and Walter Winchell.

Dahl eventually caught the attention of first lady Eleanor Roosevelt and, through her, President Franklin Roosevelt. Before he knew it, Dahl had become a back-door conduit for the president and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to exchange information.

Headed by William Stephenson, the BSC worked to bolster American support of aid to Britain and protect the Office of Strategic Services, a cooperative intelligence effort between the two countries whose agents included Julia Child, Sterling Hayden and William J. Casey.

Conant's foray into the world of espionage, particularly Dahl's involvement there, is highly detailed without being dry. With an entertaining narrative, her prose reads more like a novel than a history book.

Well researched and chock-full of intricate history, what could be a dry intellectual look at espionage during World War II is instead a fresh, engrossing read full of amusing anecdotes.

Unfortunately, this extensive look does drag in places. "The Irregulars" would benefit from shorter chapters and more frequent paragraph breaks. And while the section of included photographs is a nice addition, more photographs of Dahl himself would have been nice.


E-mail: jharrison@desnews.com