By Michael Frayn.
When Stephen Wheatley goes back to the close where he lived as a boy during World War II, he is reminded of the events which follow the announcement by his friend, Keith, that his mother is a German spy. The boys start investigating her and find much to suggest that she’s up to something. But their attempts at counter-espionage are rather feeble and it seems that everyone, including Keith’s mother, is well aware of them, their activities (if not the reason for them), and their hideout. Eventually, Stephen discovers what Keith’s mother is doing, has an encounter with Barbara Berrill, and learns another secret, one about himself.
In spite of the brevity of the novel, it’s quite complicated to try to describe the plot coherently. Stephen is small, much harassed, and easily led by the domineering Keith who takes after his unpleasant, bullying father. He tends to find himself in over his head and resorts to every school boy’s favourite defence – dumb ignorance (which is a little annoying at times). His attempts to do the right thing never seem to work and usually making things worse. Stephen also has an obsession with germs which is never explained. His older brother, Geoff, is oafish and uncouth. As a reprisal for revealing the boys’ mission to Barbara Berrill and Keith’s mother (much implied, but little admitted directly), Keith cuts Stephen’s throat with his father’s bayonet (not fatally) in a final unpleasant act. Older Stephen’s memory is a little ropey at times, but it’s not a motif which gets much airtime. Keith is one of those children who thinks that if the idea doesn’t come from him, then it has little value. It’s hard to say why he even tolerates Stephen, but since he’s unpopular and Stephen is an outsider himself, perhaps that is how they might gravitate together. His father was perpetually whistling his malevolent whistle and tending his garden. His mother, ever elegantly dressed, carried two secrets about her brother-in-law. Barbara Berrill was the Lisa Simpson of the book, being far more aware of the adult world than Stephen and more mature. Since adults don’t appear to have much of a clue when it comes to writing children, she seemed to be that stock child character with wisdom well beyond her years.
I thought Spies was a little bit stage play, though. I could imagine all the pregnant pauses when things are left unsaid, or the parts which we as adults would understand, but which would go over Stephen’s head. The characters would, I think, be quite at home on the stage with their particular traits as I’ve outlined above.
Overall, a decent book.