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Michael Frayn's 'Spies' - How The Author Presents Mystery and Intrigue.

Updated on November 19, 2015

'Spies' by Michael Frayn, is something of a 'coming of age' novel ~ or 'Bildungsroman' ~ about two young boys, their families and their neighbours. It is set, mainly, in World War Two England ~ in a London suburb.

It is mostly written in flashback, as the narrator ~ an elderly man ~ attempts to remember, understand, and come to terms with, some events of his childhood that he has long forgotten.

But have they been forgotten because of the time that has elapsed? Or because an old man's memory is unreliable? Or because there are some things best forgotten?!

Frayn cleverly presents a feeling of mystery and intrigue in his story. A special mood is created. How does he do this?

Mystery and intrigue indicate questions and doubts. The author deliberately leaves the reader wondering about certain characters, certain activities, certain aspects of the plot ~ indeed, the talented author deliberately leaves the reader wondering about whatever it is that he wants the reader to be wondering about! This is the writer's style.

This wondering and questioning lead to a feeling of disquiet ~ and that is exactly what Frayn does here. From the very beginning, he leaves his readers wondering, questioning, feeling very slightly disturbed ~ and the feelings grow as the pages are turned.

Spies - Front Covers

London Bombed in World War II

'This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States Federal Government under the terms of Title 17, Chapter 1, Section 105 of the US Code'. See:
'This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States Federal Government under the terms of Title 17, Chapter 1, Section 105 of the US Code'. See: | Source

As I mentioned in my other hub on this subject ~ Michael Frayn's 'Spies' - the Beginning of the Novel ~ Frayn does this from the very outset. He poses unanswered questions, making his main character, and his empathetic readers, feel uncomfortable about something ~ though they are not quite sure what.

Indeed the very title is a mystery ~ 'Spies'. Spies are, by definition, mysterious people ~ but who are the spies of this novel?

The opening sentence of the story is mysterious: 'The third week of June, and there it is again ... A breath of sweetness .. on the warm evening air.' But the narrator does not know what this fragrance is. He only knows that it reminds him of something long forgotten. It is sweet, but it is troubling.

Our narrator goes back ~ back to the place of his childhood; the place of the troubling half-memories ~ 'Memory Lane', he calls it ~ or maybe 'Amnesia Avenue'.

But is it possible to go back to the London of World War Two?

Frayn introduces Chapter two with another sentence that implies mystery: 'everything is as it was ... and everything has changed'. The reader is encouraged to wonder what the author / narrator means. What has 'changed'? How can things have 'changed', if 'everything is as it was'?

A little later, the author reinforces this message: 'I begin to see that everything's not really as it was at all. It's completely changed.'

Along with this vague and troubling vocabulary, the author, whom we learn is named Stephen Wheatley, also gives rather enigmatic descriptions of what appears to be a very ordinary place ~ a close in London. He mentions that each house was 'behind its screen of roses'. Each was hidden. Each was 'a mystery'.

The house named 'Trevithick' is given a very gothic description: 'it's gloomy introversion has a sinister allure ... No-one knows the name of the people who live here ... Their faces are swarthy, their clothes are black. They come and go in the hours of darkness.'

Apparently, the author's childhood friend, Keith Hayward, with typically youthful misunderstanding, discovered that this 'mysterious house ... with the perpetually drawn black-out, was occupied by ... a sinister organisation' ~ the 'Juice'.

Secrecy and mystery are actively referred to in the language of the text. Stephen's father uses 'eccentric' and indecipherable words. Keith almost discovered a 'secret passageway' on the embankment. The phrase 'private kingdom' is used for Mr Hayward's garage. Stephen's home and family are described using the terms 'shameful' and 'embarrassingly private'. He mentions 'strange names'. The 'privet' shrub's name is used as a misspelling of 'private''.

When the reader first encounters Keith, he is 'framed in the darkness of the house beyond', in spite of the 'white wicket fence' perfection of the property. Mr Hayward's bayonet 'bounces chillingly' and his revolver is kept in a 'secret drawer' in the bedroom. The Haywards supposedly missed out on Wimbledon triumph because of a 'sinister organisation'. The narrator describes his former self feeling 'lost' in a 'vague daydream'. He mentions 'hidden links' between moments in the past.

Certain words or ideas are repeated: Things are hidden, secret, private, screened. People and organisations are sinister, strange. Words and names are eccentric, strange ~ and some mysterious people are unnamed. There is a perpetual black-out at one house, and darkness behind the front door of another ~ which one really hides 'gloomy introversion'? Which one really has 'a sinister allure'? There are chilling weapons, either on view, or hidden in secret drawers. There is a disconcerting feeling of vagueness; of feeling lost and confused. Even the plants are confusing and disturbing ~ 'privet' or 'private'? ~ and such a 'disconcerting perfume'. And all linked to 'hidden links' between moments in the past!

The 'drama of life' is also noted ~ in which, Stephen's part is 'frightening'.

World War One British Army Issue Revolver and Bayonets - as owned by Mr Hayward

The reader is tantalised by mention of six mystery words that were, apparently, of huge moment ~ words, which 'turned [the narrator's] world inside out'. Not until the end of Chapter Two ~ where they are placed for maximum dramatic effect ~ does the reader discover what these particular words were.

They were: 'My mother is a German spy'.

As noted, the very word 'spy' indicates mystery and intrigue.

'Private Kingdoms' Behind Privet Hedges

From York Notes - Front Cover
From York Notes - Front Cover

Another address on The Close is 'Braemar'.

It is a bombed plot ~ and 'a melancholy little landscape'.

The owner had 'carefully maintained her privacy' and this later become a 'secret kingdom', 'lost to the world'.

This is where Stephen spent a lot of time 'concealed' in bushes, whose blossoms 'half suffocated' him.

Here, again, we have the motifs of concealment, privacy, secrecy ~ another 'secret kingdon'.

And, again, the overpowering scent of some unknown plant.

Ligustrum Ovalifolium - Privet - With its Heady Scent

See: | Source

Privet Blossom

Do you like the smell of privet blossom?

See results

Mention is made, at least twice, of policemen visiting The Close. These visits were at disquieting moments ~ when things seemed somehow 'wrong'. On one occasion, the pushchair (stroller) of Keith's little cousin, Milly ~ whose family also inhabited the close ~ was left outside the Hayward's house, for some unexplained reason. On another occasion, the officer visits Keith's Auntie Dee and his mother loses her composure and begins to look 'ill and frightened'. Why? Are these clues to the mystery ~ whatever the mystery is? Is the author foreshadowing future events?

Even aspects of the book which appear to have nothing to do with any mystery still include descriptions which add to the troubling effect that the story is having on the reader. Words are used, which add to the unsettling mood. For example. the Wheatley's front door was 'warped'. The gate was 'rotten'. The shrubs were 'a promiscuous muddle'. His family was 'not quite right'; they didn't 'quite fit'.

One of the local boys was 'Eddie'. There was 'something wrong' with Eddie ~ 'hanging around, drooling and grinning and trying to touch you'.

The Hardiments were 'pale' and played piano in 'gloomy rooms' ~ Frayn used alliteration and rhyme to great effect here ~ while Barbara Berrill was 'sly and treacherous'. Gloom, darkness, slyness, secrecy, spying, treason ~ the motifs continue.

The Pinchers were 'undesirable' and shared a 'terrible connectedness' with the Wheatleys. Is that the only 'terrible connectedness', one wonders?

By the time Stephen re-visits his old home, 'the plate on the gatepost has been creosoted over'; there is a new house-name; there is a coat of 'fresh white render'. There is a sense of bad things having been concealed ~ decay being hidden!

An air of mystery is also created, by Frayn, by using time shifts. 'I became aware of the atmosphere changing around me', says Stephen, 'as if the past were somehow materialising out of the air itself'. Then: 'the whole appearance of The Close shifts in front of my eyes.'

Certain information is given which causes the reader to ask questions: Stephen's mother is often anxious ~ why? Why did no-one but Stephen visit the Haywards? Why wasn't Mr Hayward in the forces, or going out to work? Why did Mr Wheatley use a strange language? What is the sinister organisation that they call 'Juice'? Why did the police talk to Mrs Hayward and her sister, Auntie Dee? Why did Mrs Hayward post so very many letters? ~ All mysteries to be solved.

And the author confuses the reader with the narrator's own questions and comments, such as 'Have I got everything back to front?'; 'No, wait. I've got that wrong.' And he drifts off into reverie ~ as denoted by ellipsis (.............) ~ where, the reader cannot follow, thus promoting more questions and confusion.

Posting So Many Letters!

In the Public Domain. See: and
In the Public Domain. See: and | Source

Spies - Book Cover - Through the Tunnel

Front Cover
Front Cover

As noted, Frayn uses foreshadowing, in order to make the reader question and wonder. Remember Milly's pushchair? ~ 'The only time', says Stephen, ' I saw Milly's pushchair waiting outside Keith's parents' front door was later ~ and I knew at once that something was wrong'. The reader also now knows that something is going to be 'wrong', but we shall not dind out what, until 'later'. This is tantalising, secretive and mysterious.

Frayn uses ellipsis, foreshadowing and evocative language in order to create a mood of disquiet and mystery. He gives just the right amount of information, in a chosen order, to cause his reading audience to feel disquieted ~ to ask, and attempt to answer, questions, both written and unwritten; stated and implied ~ and to seek solutions to the mysteries presented.

Then there is the dark and slimy railway tunnel, which leads to a a land of mystery and to the unexpected sound of a hidden stranger, coughing

Thus, an air of intrigue and mystery result from two basic elements: a number of unanswered questions and a feeling of disquiet. Frayn deliberately writes in the style that will achieve this required result.

Each House was Hidden 'Behind its Screen of Roses'

'Autumn Damask' ('Quatre Saisons'). See:
'Autumn Damask' ('Quatre Saisons'). See: | Source

Impeccable 1940s Elegance

Public Domain - copyright expired (ACC). See:
Public Domain - copyright expired (ACC). See: | Source

The boys ~ being boys ~ of course, see mystery and adventure all around them. Is there a prowler? What does the letter 'x' signify? Why does Mrs Hayward wear a tight-fitting scarf around her neck, even in high summer?

What lies through the dark railway tunnel, in the wild open land beyond? Who are the strange people, who reside, with their strange dogs, in the lane? Why does Barbara's presence make Stephen feel so strange?

There are so many questions that inquisitive, but innocent and ignorant, youngsters, who have not quite reached puberty, will ask.

And there are questions that the reader will ask: Why does Auntie Dee's personality change so abruptly? Why does the impeccable Mrs Hayward sit in the dirt, crying to a ten-year-old Stephen Wheatley? Will we ever meet the heroic Uncle Peter?

Spies and Spies Study Guide

Frayn terrifyingly describes a revolver and a bayonet, and he uses references to fear, dread and guilt, as well as words such as shameful, gloomy, decay, darkness, melancholy, private, secret, hidden, concealed, sinister, screened and mysterious.

All give the reader a feeling for ~ and, thus, a certain understanding of ~ the worrying, perplexing and, indeed, disturbingly unpleasant nature of his story. There is something menacing in the use of the phrase 'disconcerting perfume', to des

cribe the smell of privet ~ yes, that is what it turns out to be; a shrub that was often used for garden hedging, in the past, in English suburbs. This heady 'perfume' becomes yet more disturbing when the word 'suffocating' is added.

Individually, all of these words might not receive much attention, but, together, they lend a definite air of intrigue.

Two Boys Seeking Adventure - Spies - Book Cover

Front Cover - Amazon
Front Cover - Amazon

As noted, the six important words ('My mother is a German spy'), which had been mentioned early, to cause a feeling of anticipation, are not explained until the end of Chapter Two. Here again, the reader is left feeling baffled, until the puzzle is solved. But, even then, the mention of the word 'spy' means intrigue! The suggestion that the perfect Mrs Hayward might be a spy is disconcerting, and the fact that these words 'turned everything upside down' indicates that the readers' feelings will be churned up, and that s/he will be left feeling uneasy, even after the 'mystery' has been solved.

All boys get into lots of adventures ~ as do the ones in this story ~ but the reader senses that something important ~ more important that these boys might guess ~ is happening in their quiet little close. Will the older Stephen find out what he wants to know? Would it have been better left hidden?

Some Important Characters, who live in The Close:

Stephen Wheatley ~ the narrator
Keith Hayward ~ Stephen's affluent childhood friend
Mrs. Hayward ~ Keith's impeccable mother
Mr. Hayward ~ Keith's whistling father
Barbara Berrill ~ a girl in the close, who befriends Stephen
Auntie Dee ~ Mrs Hayward's sister, to whom she is close
Uncle Peter ~ Auntie Dee's heroic RAF husband

From the Amazon Review of 'Spies':

'In Michael Frayn's novel Spies an old man returns to the scene of his seemingly ordinary suburban childhood. Stephen Wheatley is unsure of what he is seeking, but as he walks once-familiar streets he hasn't seen in 50 years, he unfolds a story of childish games colliding cruelly with adult realities.'

From Publishers Weekly's Review of 'Spies', via Amazon:

'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.'

'... this enigmatic melodrama will keep readers' attention firmly in hand'.

Amazon Customer Review

Mick Drakes (author of 'All`s Well at Wellwithoute') has written a 5-star Amazon review of 'Spies', where he comments:

"This beautifully written book evokes the hopes, fears, misunderstandings and adventures of childhood more vivedly than any other book I have read ..."

Spies - York Notes

Front Cover
Front Cover

'Spies' - York Notes

The novel 'Spies'. may be relatively short, but it contains a lot of material.

It is multi-layered.

It can be read as an entertaining, thought provoking and, ultimately, disturbing piece of fictional literature. It can be used as a historical text ~ possibly even a primary one, since the author lived through the period he describes, when he as the same age as his young hero. It can be looked at as a philosophical study ~ considering the nature of memory; aging; the difference between the adult and child within the same person; memory and its triggers; etc.

In order to make the most of it, it is worth joining a reading group or study group ~ particularly one with a knowledgeable 'guide'.

Another way to find and enjoy all of the layers that this book has to offer, is to read it in conjunction with a copy of York Notes study guide.

Read it through once, just for pleasure ~ and then again, in order to submerge yourself in all of the deeper meanings of the text.

2002 / 2003 - Award-Winning Fiction - Best Novel

In the year 2002, Michael Frayn's short novel, 'Spies' won the Whitbread prize for fiction.

The following year, it was classed as 'best book', and won the Commonwealth Writers Prize, for the 'Eurasia Region'.

'Spies' - Front Covers
'Spies' - Front Covers

Michael Frayn

From 'Spies' back cover
From 'Spies' back cover

More Works by Michael Frayn

Michael Frayn has written a number of works of fiction and non-fiction. Also, plays and screen-plays.

These are his novels:

'The Tin Men' (1965)
'The Russian Interpreter' (1966)
'Towards the End of the Morning' (1967)
'A Very Private Life' (1968)
'Sweet Dreams' (1973)
'The Trick of It' (1989)
'A Landing on the Sun' (1991)
'Now You Know' (1993)
'Headlong' (1999)

Memories and the Sense of Smell

Fragrances and Memory

Do you think that smell is a strong trigger for memories?

See results

Privet and Memories

Michael Frayn is not the only author to allow the heady fragrance of the privet shrub to take him back in time;

'Privet Lives: An Imaginary Tale of Southampton's Iconic Shrub' by Sam Shahid, Harold Evans and Perry Guillot, provides 'a fanciful and fascinating collection ... that tell an imaginary tale of the humble privet shrub .... the drawings become a metaphor for the town's residents diminished appreciation and understanding of the natural landscape beyond'.

'Inside the Privet Hedge' by Neva Coyle concerns '... a time of leaving behind nostalgic memories of jukeboxes and summer nights for the hopes, dreams, and uncertainties of the future.'

'The Smell of Privet', by Barbara Sleigh, is a memoir, about the author's childhood in Birmingham (UK).

Maddy Rhodes wrote about World War Two memories, on behalf of Jane Bell who recalled: "My mother and us three children were put in a requisitioned house .... The house had a small back garden with a privet hedge. I cannot stand the smell of privet flowers to this day."

The poem, 'The Privet Tree', begins: 'The privet has a horrid smell and yet I love it so, It reminds me of my childhood and of summers long ago'. Here is another line: 'And the smell of privet, oh so strong, I can almost smell it now'.

'Spies' as a Source for WW1 History

Since Michael Frayn lived through the Second world War, and remembers life in Britain, at the time, this book might be considered a valuable source for introducing the history of World War Two to young people.


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    • Trish_M profile imageAUTHOR

      Tricia Mason 

      16 months ago from The English Midlands

      I hope that you will enjoy it, Gilbert :)


      Thank you, Dr. Ramoray Glade

    • rebelogilbert profile image

      Gilbert Arevalo 

      18 months ago from Hacienda Heights, California

      You sold me into reading "Spies" sometime. I love spy movies and novels. I just watched "Where Eagles Dare," starring Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood. A British spy uncovers corrupt double agents in Nazi Germany. The story is too fantastic but I loved it. Your book review suggests "Spies" contain rich and complex characters. I hope I don't get too confused by his method.

    • profile image

      Dr. Ramoray Glade 

      22 months ago

      I'd like to take your time and thank you for this wonderful piece of writing. I myself enjoy reading and absolutely adore the type of research you have done. I am using you articles for my PHD in English Literature. This was absolutely lovely.

    • Trish_M profile imageAUTHOR

      Tricia Mason 

      2 years ago from The English Midlands

      Although I did begin this piece by stating the book is 'set, mainly, in World War Two England', I did later make the error of saying 'World War Two'. I have now corrected this, so thank you.

    • profile image


      2 years ago

      The writer makes the mistake of suggesting the story is set in World War 1. It is actually set in World War 2. World War 1 was the previous war in which Mr Hayward did fight. He is too old to be called to fight in WW2 and, instead, takes a part in the "Home Guard" each weekend with other non-combatants (older men or men unable to serve for various reasons).


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