Friday, January 18, 2013

Child's play

You wouldn't think that a story about two boys at play could turn into such a nail-biter, especially when neither child is ever in any real danger. Yet Michael Frayn's 2002 novel Spies reads like a thriller.

Certain odors can take us back to faraway places and long-ago times, and it is a smell that causes an old man, Stephen Wheatley, to remember a particular summer during World War II when he was growing up in a new neighborhood in London.

Stephen is a quiet boy, preyed on by bullies, whose only friend is Keith, also a loner. In their relationship, Keith is always the leader, Stephen always the follower. Keith invents the fanciful games they play. One day Keith announces, "My mother is a German spy." And so the boys, doing their patriotic duty, closely observe Keith's mother to try to learn her secrets.

It turns out that his mother, if perhaps not a spy, nevertheless does have secrets, and what the boys discover shakes up their lives and the lives of others in the neighborhood.

Frayn is marvelous writer, and Spies really is hard to put down, just like a more conventional thriller.

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