Spies: A Novel [NOOK Book]


From the bestselling author of Headlong, a mesmerizing novel about secrecy, imagination, and a child's game turned deadly earnest

The sudden trace of a disturbing, forgotten aroma compels Stephen Wheatley to return to the site of a dimly remembered but troubling childhood summer in wartime London. As he pieces together his scattered images, we are brought back to a quiet, suburan street where two boys, Keith and his sidekick-Stephen-are ...
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Spies: A Novel

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From the bestselling author of Headlong, a mesmerizing novel about secrecy, imagination, and a child's game turned deadly earnest

The sudden trace of a disturbing, forgotten aroma compels Stephen Wheatley to return to the site of a dimly remembered but troubling childhood summer in wartime London. As he pieces together his scattered images, we are brought back to a quiet, suburan street where two boys, Keith and his sidekick-Stephen-are engaged in their own version of the war effort: spying on the neighbors, recording their movements, ferreting out their secrets.

But when Keith utters six shocking words, the boys' game of espionage takes a sinister and unintended turn. A wife's simple errands and a family's ordinary rituals-once the focus of childish speculation-become the tragic elements of adult catastrophe.

In gripping prose, charged with emotional intensity, Spies reaches into the moral confusion of youth to reveal a reality filled with deceptions and betrayals, where the bonds of friendship, marriage, and family are unravelled by cowardice and erotic desire. Master illusionist Michael Frayn powerfully demonstrates, yet again, that what appears to be happening in front of our eyes often turns out to be something we can't see at all.

Winner of the 2002 Whitbread Award for best novel.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
From the bestselling author of Headlong, and “a master of intellectual mystery masquerading as ripping popular entertainment...a gorgeous melancholy that shivers the mind.” —The New York Times Book Review

“Marvelously effective...a novel of extraordinary power and wisdom, a tour de force of humane insight.” —The Baltimore Sun

“Bernard Shaw couldn’t do it, Henry James couldn’t do it, but the ingenious English author Michael Frayn does do it: write novels and plays with equal success. [He] has extended his reach and seriousness while keeping a sprightly intellectuality.” —John Updike, The New Yorker

“In Spies, recollections of actual things—the ‘disconcerting perfume’ of privet hedges in bloom and the flavor of lemon barley water—make Frayn’s story so real you can taste it.” —Boston Herald

“[Spies] convinces American readers that Frayn, author of some thirteen novels and sixteen plays, is a literary double threat.” —The Boston Globe

Publishers Weekly
By the author of the bestselling Booker Prize finalist Headlong, this dark, nostalgic and bittersweet parable evokes the childhood escapades of an isolated and hapless young boy caught up in the uncertainties of wartime London in the early 1940s, just after the horrors of the Luftwaffe blitz. Stephen Wheatley, now a grandfather living abroad, is drawn back to London to revisit his boyhood home, to deal with the complexities and eventual tragedy engendered by what seemed a harmless game of spy when he was just a schoolboy during WWII. His best friend at the time was Keith Hayward, the bright son of rather standoffish parents; Keith and Stephen embark on a childish adventure after Keith announces that his British mother is a German spy. The murky plot follows their frustrations as they try to shadow Keith's mum as she goes through the mundane ritual of stopping by her sister's house with letters and a shopping basket, only to disappear into the neighboring streets. Discovering at last that she takes a route through the culvert beneath the railroad and leaves letters in a box hidden on the other side, they eventually learn that she sometimes meets a tattered, bearded tramp hiding in a bombed-out cellar. When Keith's mum finally realizes they have found her out, she secretly seeks Stephen's loyalty, making him complicit. Thrust into a role far beyond his years, but helpless to refuse, he is overwhelmed. As it plays out to a surprising denouement, this enigmatic melodrama will keep readers' attention firmly in hand. (Apr. 3) Forecast: Fans of Headlong may miss that novel's dark comedy, but those who appreciate Frayn for the rigorous intelligence of his fiction will find him in fine form here. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Michiko Kakutani
Ingenious....As entertaining as it is intelligent, as stimulating as it is funny.
—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
Michael Upchurch
Finely wrought and highly comical....Frayn is a writer who likes to pull the rug out from under your feet while offering you the most seductive of smiles.
—Michael Upchurch, The Seattle Times
New Yorker
Part detective story, part art history lesson, part cautionary tale, and entirely funny.
Library Journal
Following up Booker Prize finalist Headlong and the Tony Award-winning Copenhagen, Frayn crafts a story of World War II London, where two boys playing at spy discover things about family and neighbors they shouldn't know. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Bitter memories of the home front during WWII resurface in this muted yet moving tenth novel from popular British author Frayn (The Copenhagen Papers, 2001, etc.) and playwright (Noises Off, etc.). In a Proustian prologue, a mysteriously sweet outdoor aroma evokes indistinct memories of its narrator Stephen Wheatley's youth in a tightly knit suburban "close" during the war years. Returning to his home village, the now elderly Stephen "sees" a series of scenes featuring his young self and his confident, domineering best friend Keith Hayward. "He was the officers corps in our two-man army," Stephen muses, while recalling the elaborate system of wires and tunnels the boys had constructed between their two houses, and the military games they had played in imitation of the larger conflict ongoing in Europe-culminating in acts of secrecy and surveillance prompted by Keith's astonishing declaration that "My mother … is a German spy." Frayn sticks close to Stephen's timid sensibility, thrown into tormented relief by the boy's growing suspicion that Mrs. Hayward's frequent brief absences from home and habit of "visiting" a nearby railway tunnel are undertaken, not out of solidarity with the enemy, but in order to meet with a lover-who is perhaps a "downed" German pilot, or an "old tramp" suspected of being a sexual deviant; or in fact something much less romantic and thrilling. The story is somewhat thinly plotted, and little seems to happen-outside Stephen's busy imagination, at least-for a distractingly long time. But Frayn holds our attention with sharp economical characterizations of the frail and beautiful Mrs. Hayward, Stephen's annoyingly ordinary own family, and Keith's supremelyself-confident father, a misogynistic martinet who virtually radiates smiling, perfectly controlled menace. Only a curious overabundance of climactic surprise-twists vitiates the skill with which Stephen's ordeal of subterfuge and guilt is portrayed. A bit reminiscent of L.P. Hartley's modern classic The Go-Between but, still, an essentially original and very affecting tale.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781466822580
  • Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 1/18/2003
  • Sold by: Macmillan
  • Format: eBook
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 612,658
  • File size: 204 KB

Meet the Author

Michael Frayn is the author of nine novels, including the bestselling Headlong, which was a New York Times Editor's Choice selection and a Booker Prize finalist. He has also written thirteen plays, among them Noises Off and Copenhagen, which won three Tony Awards in 1999. He lives in London.
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Read an Excerpt



The third week of June, and there it is again: the same almost embarrassingly familiar breath of sweetness that comes every year about this time. I catch it on the warm evening air as I walk past the well-ordered gardens in my quiet street, and for a moment I'm a child again and everything's before me—all the frightening, half-understood promise of life.

It must come from one of the gardens. Which one? I can never trace it. And what is it? It's not like the heartbreaking tender sweetness of the lime blossom, for which this city's known, or the serene summer happiness of the honeysuckle. It's something quite harsh and coarse. It reeks. It has a kind of sexual urgency to it. And it unsettles me, as it always does. I feel ... what? A restlessness. A longing to be over the woods at the end of the street and away, away. And yet at the same time I have a kind of homesickness for where I am. Is that possible? I have a feeling that something, somewhere, has been left unresolved, that some secret thing in the air around me is still waiting to be discovered.

Another hint of it as the summer breeze stirs, and I know that the place I should like to be off to is my childhood. Perhaps the home I'm homesick for is still there, after all. I can't help noticing, as I do every summer in late June, when thatsweet reek comes, that there are cheap flights to that far-off nearby land. Twice I pick up the phone to book; twice I put it down again. You can't go back, everyone knows that ... So I'm never going, then? Is that what I'm deciding? I'm getting old ... Who knows—this year may be the last chance I'll get ...

But what is it, that terrible disturbing presence in the summer air? If only I knew what the magic blossom was called, if only I could see it, perhaps I'd be able to identify the source of its power. I suddenly catch it while I'm walking my daughter and her two small children back to their car after their weekly visit. I put a hand on her arm. She knows about plants and gardening. "Can you smell it? There ... now ... What is it?"

She sniffs. "Just the pines," she says. There are tall pines growing in all the sandy gardens, sheltering the modest houses from the summer sun and making our famously good air fresh and exhilarating. There's nothing clean or resinous, though, about the reek I can detect insinuating itself so slyly. My daughter wrinkles her nose. "Or do you mean that rather ... vulgar smell?"

I laugh. She's right. It is a rather vulgar smell.

"Liguster," she says.

Liguster ... I'm no wiser. I've heard the word, certainly, but no picture comes to mind, and no explanation of the power it has over me. "It's a shrub," says my daughter. "Quite common. You must have seen it in parks. Very dull-looking. It always makes me think of depressing Sunday afternoons in the rain." Liguster ... No. And yet, as another wave of that shameless summons drifts over us, everything inside me stirs and shifts.

Liguster ... And yet it's whispering to me of something secret, of some dark and unsettling thing at the back of my mind,of something I don't quite like to think about ... I wake up in the night with the word nagging at me. Liguster ...

Hold on, though. Was my daughter speaking English when she told me that? I get down the dictionary ... No—she wasn't. And as soon as I see what it is in English I can't help laughing again. Of course! How obvious! I'm laughing this time partly out of embarrassment because a professional translator shouldn't be caught out by such a simple word—and also because, now I know what it is, it seems such a ridiculously banal and inappropriate cue for such powerful feelings.

Now all kinds of things come back to me. Laughter, for a start. On a summer's day nearly sixty years ago. I've never thought about it before, but now there she is again, my friend Keith's mother, in the long-lost green summer shade, her brown eyes sparkling, laughing at something Keith has written. I see why, of course, now that I know what it was, scenting the air all around us.

Then the laughter's gone. She's sitting in the dust in front of me, weeping, and I don't know what to do or what to say. All around us once again, seeping unnoticed into the deepest recesses of my memory, to stay with me for the rest of my life, is that sweet and luring reek.

Keith's mother. She must be in her nineties now. Or dead. How many of the others are still alive? How many of them remember?

What about Keith himself? Does he ever think about the things that happened that summer? I suppose he may be dead, too.

Perhaps I'm the only one who still remembers. Or half remembers. Glimpses of different things flash into my mind, in random sequence, and are gone. A shower of sparks ... Afeeling of shame ... Someone unseen coughing, trying not to be heard ... A jug covered by a lace weighted with four blue beads ...

And, yes—those words spoken by my friend Keith that set everything off in the first place. It's often hard to remember the exact words that someone uttered half a century ago, but these are easy, because there were so few of them. Six, to be precise. Spoken quite casually, like the most passing of remarks, as light and insubstantial as soap bubbles. And yet they changed everything.

As words do.

I suddenly have the feeling that I should like to think about all this at some length, now I've started, and to establish some order in it all, some sense of the connections. There were things that no one ever explained. Things that no one even said. There were secrets. I should like to bring them out into the daylight at last. And I sense the presence still, even now that I've located the source of my unrest, of something at the back of it all that remains unresolved.

I tell my children I'm going to London for a few days. "Do we have a contact for you there?" asks my well-organized daughter-in-law.

"Memory Lane, perhaps," suggests my son drily. We are evidently all speaking English together. He can sense my restlessness.

"Exactly," I reply. "The last house before you go round the bend and it turns into Amnesia Avenue."

I don't tell them that I'm following the track of a shrub that flowers for a few weeks each summer and destroys my peace.

I certainly don't tell them the name of the shrub. I scarcely like to name it to myself. It's too ridiculous.

SPIES. Copyright © 2002 by Michael Frayn. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address Picador, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.

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Reading Group Guide

From the celebrated British novelist and playwright Michael Frayn comes this rich tale novel of childhood, deceit, desire, guilt, innocence, the past, and other such universal mysteries. In Spies, one Stephen Wheatley revisits the sidewalks, shops, houses, and fragrant shrubs and flowers of his childhood neighborhood, and in doing so returns to vivid memories and life-changing secrets of growing up in wartime London. As Stephen pieces together his scattered recollections, we are brought back to a quiet, suburban street where two boys -- Keith and his sidekick, Stephen -- are engaged in their own version of the war effort: spying on their neighbors, recording their movements, and ferreting out their secrets. But when Keith reveals a shocking facet of his home life, the boys' game of espionage takes a sinister and unexpected turn, transforming a wife and mother's simple errands into the elements of adult deception, irreversible catastrophe, and domestic violence.

In his sharp yet tender depiction of the boundless imagination and incessant game-playing of childhood, Frayn offers us an exciting world of suspense and intrigue -- but it also a world that is human, familiar, ordinary, and real. Lyrically written and sensitively imagined, Spies powerfully demonstrates that what appears to be happening in front of our very eyes often turns out to be something we cannot see at all.

Discussion Questions:
1. Throughout Spies, Stephen looks back on his friendship with Keith, a friendship that is, like the novel itself, in both the present and past tense. Trace the arc of their relationship. Why is it so lopsided? And was their break-up inevitable, in your view? Explain.

2. Explore the links between plot and memory in this novel. How, if at all, is the structure and pacing of this narrative determined by the recollections, associations, and rediscoveries of its narrator?

3. Stephen, the hero of Spies, is a professional translator who looks back -- in painstaking, suspenseful detail -- on his childhood. What else, in the fullness of the novel, do we come to learn about Stephen -- as a boy and as a man? Discuss Spies as Stephen's attempt to translate his boyhood self into the person he is now. What can Spies teach us about the changing nature of the self, about the flux that is identity?

4. In Chapter Three, Keith's mother turns from her household duties to address Keith and Stephen jokingly and directly: "'Bang, bang!' she says humorously, pointing an imaginary gun at us, as if we were children. 'Got you, the pair of you!'" Discuss various ironic connotations of this remark.

5. Much of the action in this novel concerns game-playing. What sorts of games are played here? Are they innocent or dangerous, imaginary or real? And who plays them -- children, adults, both? Later in Chapter Three, Stephen observes: "Never before, though, has [the game he plays with Keith] become real, really real, in the way that it has this time." Where else in the novel are we (and/or Stephen) alarmed, even frightened, by the tension between how things seem and how they "really" are?

6. Review the scene shared by Stephen and Barbara Berrill inside the lookout in Chapter Eight. How do such adolescent pastimes as kissing, smoking cigarettes, sitting in a hideout, and gossiping reflect the broader themes of Spies? Discuss how human longing and love itself function amid the key mysteries in this mystery novel.

7. Explain the meanings and properties attributed to "X" in Spies. What does this letter mean to Stephen and Keith? What does it mean to Keith's mother? What about the symbolic/semiotic/semantic baggage of the letter? Also, explain why and how Stephen links the words germ and German.

8. Identify those passages where Stephen, looking back on the people and events of this tale, is conflicted by what he did say or do and what he could have -- or should have -- said or done. What other characters herein are likewise conflicted? Support your views with excerpts from the novel.

9. Define the German terms Fernweh and Heimweh. What does Stephen mean when he applies these terms to his own experiences? How, if at all, might these two terms also be applied to the novel in general?

10. Look again at the last pages of Spies. Who, after all, was the man hiding out in the pit? Why was he there? Discuss this man's reasons for his actions, both during the war and after. Discuss, also, the "shame" that Stephen attributes to him.

About the Author:
Michael Frayn is the author of several novels, including the widely acclaimed and bestselling Headlong. He has also written over a dozen plays, among them Noises Off and Copenhagen, which won three Tony Awards in 1999. He lives in London.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 9 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 10 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 9, 2002

    Grips You From the Beginning

    An elderly man's visit to his old childhood home, growing up in wartime London, evokes memories and details of friends and adventures in a fast moving story shrouded with a subtle mystique. A vivid imagination and a youth's sense of daring provide a surprisingly powerful tale that unwinds in a 'can't put it down' story difficult to predict from any synopsis without revealing too much of the reality of it all.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 31, 2007

    A slow start, but it hooked me.

    There are many subtleties in this book, and the author knows you know the resolution, more or less, before you reach it. I agree that the final chapter or so is a bit superfluous -- many readers will have figured out what's going on with the tramp, and possibly with Stephen's story also. Still, the author does a marvelous job of telling the story from his protagonist's viewpoint, that of a child entangled in an adult web of secrets and deceits. The characters are authentic -- witnessing Kevin's development is quite chilling. I really enjoyed this book and will buy others by this author.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 23, 2006

    Spies: A review

    I found the first few chapters of Spies difficult to read, however as the plot progressed I became intrigued to learn what would happen next. If you study this book in depth you can't help understanding and being drawn to the different characters. However I found old man Stephen extremely annoying and the geraniums irritating. The ending was slightly disappointing and did not seem so well crafted as the rest of the novel and rather rushed after so careful a build up to the climax. Overall I would recommend Spies. Frayn has written it very cleverly though some of the clues towards the end are rather clumsy. It is an enjoyable book though I found it best appreciated after in-depth study.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 28, 2002

    A truly amazing book

    This book has mystery love and humor I would reccomend it to anyone!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 6, 2012

    Marvelous novel. One dissertation chapter has already been writ

    Marvelous novel. One dissertation chapter has already been written on this wonderfully \wrought work of fiction.


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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 14, 2006


    i found this book very intreasting, i love it, it was very detail, and like how he uses loads of techniques, it really did attract me in to this book, but i expected better for the ending of the book, but it was still good. every chapters, first begining was really goood, it gives us an hint what going to happen throughout the novel! i love it! now just have read it over and over again, my exam on it! :P

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 9, 2006

    Waste Of Time

    I found the book tedious. I thought the first few chapters were completely pointless. Why bring in Old Stephen when he has no use what so ever. I do understand where Frayn is coming from, i think it was a rather clever idea for the basis of a novel but when i read the last chapter i was even more dissapointed. It was so predictable and i dont understand why the fact that Stpehen himself was actually the imposter (German) made everyone think the novel was so fantastic. The novel seems to include 'Everything has changed once again, and changed forever.' Similar prashes like this are used thoughout the novel, it seems as though it is used merely to use up space. I agree with this statement 'If we are not to benefit from the older man's perspective untill the last dozen or so pages, why introduce him at the start?' (Max Watman, New Criterion)

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 17, 2005

    what I think

    i found it tedious and was unable to get in to the book fully- had to stick at it for coursework purpuoses, found the ending amazing and well worth digging through the rest of the book!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 30, 2014

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted August 16, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

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