Spies by Michael Frayn proved to be an example of that oxymoronic genre, the modern literary page-turner. It was a cracking good read with a suspense-filled plot, 3D characters and the kind of thoughtfulness that ought to be, but often isn’t, associated with Booker prizewinners. It won the Whitbread Novel of the Year Prize in 2002.
Set in World War II England, the story revolves around schoolboy friends Stephen and Keith, who live in respectable, neatly-gardened suburbia, their imaginations fired by the war which has as yet touched them only remotely (a German bomb landed on a nearby house, and Keith’s uncle is an RAF officer). One day, Keith says to Stephen the “six words which were to change my life” and sets the boys on a mission to spy on Keith’s mother, who regularly disappears during her frequent trips to the local shops for her sister, whose husband (Keith’s uncle) is apparently missing in action.
Apart from the main mystery, which is satisfyingly resolved (not always the case in literary novels), there are others such as Stephen’s family background and the identity of the people living in a neighbouring house where the blackout blinds are always drawn. But the framework of the novel and its beautifully delineated characters serve to give us a vivid, not to say pungent, portrait of life in middle-class English suburbia during the Second World War. There are subtle class distinctions: privately-educated Keith is a cut above grammar-school boy Stephen, and his coolly elegant mother with her antiques and daily cleaning lady is in contrast to Stephen’s mousy mother, mired in harassed, shabby domesticity; Keith’s father, frightening yet somehow frightened, doesn’t go out to work while Stephen’s kindly but distracted father is often away on business about which he never speaks. The schoolboy mind, with its lurid imaginings and petty cruelties, is well brought out too: the boys find bones in a neighbour’s garden, so the neighbour must be a murderer; their interpretation of the “coded” marks in Keith’s mother’s diary are comically wrongheaded; and Stephen, an awkward, shy, unattractive child, is known to his classmates as “weeny, weedy Wheatley” and gets his jug ears painfully pulled.
It’s the relationship between Stephen and Keith that lies at the heart of the novel. Keith is the leader and Stephen, in awe of Keith’s superior knowledge, the follower, though often against his better judgment which of course he doesn’t trust. And yet when a girl intrudes, it’s Stephen she’s attracted to. But by this time, clumsy Stephen has committed an unforgivable betrayal and entered a grown-up world as strange and dangerous as the war itself.
The novel is “bookended” by Stephen as an old man recalling his childhood. In the wrong hands, this sort of thing can be an annoyingly pretentious gimmick but here it works perfectly, giving an adult perspective to boyhood happenings and drawing the reader into a story which the older Stephen has, for reasons which will eventually become clear, chosen to forget until reminded by the distinctive smell of a ubiquitous garden shrub from his childhood. So Spies is also about memory, about what we choose to remember (or forget) and why.