Spies by Michael Frayn

Some novels excel in one area (character, plot, language and style, etc.) but some novels are great because they combine all these skills into a captivating whole. I would definitely put Spies into this later category. It can’t be easily categorized or pigeonholed. In some ways it is a fictional memoir but in others it is a flashback mystery or maybe a reminiscence on youth and memory. It is at times a gripping novel of suspense while at others a though provoking rumination on the unique perspective of youth. In reality it is all these things and that makes for a great read.

The basic story line follows two young boys in wartime Britain. The narrator, Stephen Wheatly, is flashing back to his childhood relationship with his neighbor Keith. Keith and his family are in a social class above Stephan and he is always painfully aware of how lucky he is to be able to interact with them. Because of this he gives Keith wide latitude in leading their playtime activities. Keith is always the instigator and inventor of their games and adventures. Stephen is content just to be the loyal sidekick. One particular adventure, however, start them down the path of no return. Events will soon alter their relationship and lives forever. It all started with Keith’s confessions: “my mom is a German spy.”


Soon all of Keith and Stephen’s free time is devoted to investigating and uncovering the mystery behind Keith’s mother’s espionage. Trips to the store or the post; trips to her sisters down the road, notes in her diary, soon they are all pieces in a complicated puzzle; part of a game trapped between their imagination and their burgeoning sense of the real world beyond their small neighborhood. As the mystery unravels and the pace quickens, where this line between imagination and reality falls becomes cloudy. Stephan, looking back after fifty years, tries to figure out what he knew and when he knew it. The reader must attempt to makes sense of the story only with the material Frayn gives him. Their are plenty of plot twists and turns to keep you guessing.

What makes this story so interesting is the tension Frayn creates. He does this in multiple ways. Like any good mystery writer (or at least one where the reader is kept in suspense) he artfully balances tantalizing details with vagueness and open questions. And just as you begin to fret he reveals more. In this way the basic mystery at the heart of the story pulls the reader forward. The action starts out slow but soon the tension is strong and you are pushing to get to the bottom of the mystery.

Frayn’s amazing ability to recreate the mind of a young boy – fraught with insecurity, new emotions, and complicated loyalties – also lends tension to the story. Because Frayn doesn’t simple narrate the story in a traditional flashback. Instead, Frayn has the elderly Stephan wrestle with his memory and understanding of the events at the time. The older Stephan tries to unpack his own thoughts and those of his youth. This makes the young Stephan a fascinating and amazingly real character, plus it raises interesting questions about perspective and memory. Frayn captures all of the fear and excitement of childhood; the in-securities of fitting in with friends and interacting with family; the awkward age where you are not sure if girls are weird or wonderful; the pull of loyalty and fear. Stephan is a great lens into adolescence.

He is also a fascinating lens into questions of memory and reality. Children are obviously apt to blur the line between fantasy and reality, but as adults we are fully capable of selective memory and refusing to look reality in the eye. All of us have refused to believe something or face up to the truth because it was too much to bear; because it would ruin everything. As events force the young Stephan to allow uncomfortable truths into his reality, the elder Stephan is forced to try an understand how and why he thought what he did and took the actions he did fifty years ago. This self-dialogue gives the story a philosophical depth not usually found in a thriller or mystery.

Frayn doesn’t lose any style points either, as his writing is elegant and tight. He subtly weaves the action and the ideas into a coherent whole. This is not a novel of ideas per see but it is thought provoking nonetheless but without sacrificing good characters and a well thought out plot. Rather than continue to babble on in a vain attempt to describe the book, let me just say that it is a darn good read and one I would recommend to anyone. Interesting characters, thought provoking, easy to read, it has it all. If you like your fiction intelligent and suspenseful, Spies should be on your list.

About the author

Kevin Holtsberry

I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season – oh, and watching golf too).

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