Skip to main content

'Spies', by Michael Frayn - the Beginning Chapter of the Novel - Summary and Analysis

'Spies- A Novel' by Michael Frayn


Michael Frayn's 'Spies' - the Beginning of the Novel

The beginning of a novel must draw readers in, and encourage them to read on, if it is to be truly effective.

Does Michael Frayn's novel 'Spies' do this?

Let us consider the matter;

If unanswered questions are posed early, and there are mysteries to solve, then it is likely that the reader will want to find out more.

Furthermore, if the reader feels empathy with the situation, then he or she is even more likely to be drawn in.

In 'Spies', there is truly an abundance of mysteries and unanswered questions.

And there are a number of characters, of different ages and backgrounds, with whom the reader might feel a connection.

Privet for Privacy



'Spies' by Michael Frayn

Works of Michael Frayn:

Novels and Novellas:
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 ~ 1998
Spies ~ 2002
Celia's Secret: The Copenhagen Papers ~ 2000 (with David Burke)

The Two of Us ~ 1970
Listen To This ~ 1990
Alarms ~ 1998
Crimson Hotel / Audience ~ 2009
Frayn Plays ~ 2010

Alphabetical Order ~ 1975
Clouds ~ 1976
Donkeys' Years ~ 1977
Make and Break ~ 1980
Noises Off ~ 1982
Benefactors ~ 1984
Clockwise ~ Screenplay ~ 1986
Balmoral ~ 1987
First and Last ~ Screenplay ~ 1989
Look Look ~ 1990
Audience ~ 1991
Copenhagen ~ 1998
Democracy ~ 2003
Afterlife ~ 2008

Non fiction:
The Day of the Dog ~ 1962
The Book of Fub ~ 1963
On the Outskirts ~ 1964
At Bay in Gear Street ~ 1967
Constructions ~ 1974
Speak After the Beep ~ Studies in the Art of Communicating with Inanimate and Semi-animate Objects ~ 1995
The Additional Michael Frayn ~ 2000
The Human Touch ~ 2006
Collected Columns ~ 2007
Stage Directions ~ 2008
Travels with a Typewriter ~ A Reporter at Large ~ 2009

The Aromatic Liguster




Who Are These Spies?

Before we even begin to read, there is the title. 'Spies'.

Who are these spies?

Who is spying on whom?

Then the very first line of the novel presents the reader with a mystery: 'The third week of June, and there it is again'.

There what is?

A 'breath of sweetness .. on the warm evening air.'

The reader is beginning to be hooked already ~ he can feel the balmy air of early summer and smell a sweet, but unknown, scent.

The reader may well empathise with this ~ knowing how scents can take one back in time, but also knowing how difficult it may be to recognise the fragrance, especially out of context.

The reader is being drawn in.

The narrator states 'for a moment I'm a child again' faced with things 'frightening' and 'half-understood'.

And the 'frightening, half-understood' yet again lures the reader into the mystery to come. What has happened? What is going to happen?

We have learned that it concerns the writer's past, when he was just a boy.

Will the author provide us with a solution? Could the reader, perhaps, solve this mystery?

This smell 'reeks' and 'unsettles' with its 'sexual urgency', arousing memories and feelings about 'undiscovered secrets' and things left unresolved. The air of mystery and intrigue is growing ~ enticing the reader further. What is this all about? Is it about a shameful and traumatising secret sexual encounter, perhaps?

Then the writer teases us a little ~ he suggests that maybe he won't bother to go into this ~ yet we know that he will; the book is evidence of that. After first deciding to return to the place where his awkward memories were formed, the narrator then says 'you can't go back, everyone knows that' and he puts the phone down, without booking the flight back to his childhood. Maybe the author is luring us again ~ urging the reader to say; don't stop now. Don't leave me in this awful state of not knowing; making the reader say that he wants to read this story.

While the reader is finding his own questions to ask, the author is also providing some of his own. Rhetorical questions, as yet unanswered and presumably unanswerable:

'But what is it, that terrible, disturbing presence in the summer air?.... if only I could see it.'

By now, the reader wants to identify it, too. He is also wondering what this child endured, or witnessed, that was so 'terrible' and 'disturbing', and which appears to have been all but forgotten, until a certain smell causes emotional tumult?

The narrator asks his daughter about the scent, and she finally realises that it is the vulgar 'Liguster' that he can sense. But he is 'no wiser' since he doesn't recognise the name.

Yet it is whispering to him of unsettling dark secrets and it seems to be calling to him ~ the 'shameless summons' causes his insides to 'stir and shift', 'seeping, unnoticed into the deepest recesses of my memory..' The memories that liguster stirs have been buried deep ~ possibly blocked out. We wonder ~ what could be so terrible?

Again the reader is called to solve a mystery and discover the meaning and significance of 'Liguster'.

'Liguster ...'.

Three times Frayn mentions 'liguster', followed by elipsis .... , as his character goes into reverie, trying to remember. We cannot follow him there, but, by now, we want to know almost as much as he does.

And who is 'he'?

We don't yet know very much about the character telling the story. The question which comes to him in the middle of the night is; 'Was my daughter speaking English..?'

Why would his daughter not be speaking English?

What other language might she be speaking?

The dictionary informs him that the translation is 'ridiculously banal' ~ and we wait for it. But it doesn't come. If we wish to know what it is, we shall have to read on.

'Now all kinds of things come back to me'.

But what 'things'?

We want to know. We are being reeled in again.

One memory that returns concerns Keith's mother, first laughing and then 'sitting in the dust.. weeping'.

But, who is Keith's mother? Indeed, who is Keith? Why would this grown woman be laughing one minute and crying in the dust the next ~ weeping to a child?

And what of 'someone unseen coughing'? Who was it? Why 'trying not to be heard'?

We are not told. We are cleverly tantalised by the author, but, again, we shall have to wait ~ we must read on.

'Perhaps I'm the only one who still remembers. Or half remembers' he states.

So, if we want to know, only he can tell us, and even then, we may not be able to rely on his memory ~ or check out his story with anyone else. By now, we feel that this is something real that has happened; something important that might be lost if the story isn't told ~ if the reader doesn't play his part as a 'second hand' witness.

The character's random thoughts and memories ~ his 'stream of consciousness' ~ provide us, the readers, with clues, foreshadowing what lies ahead, but they lead to questions, rather than answers: 'A shower of sparks ... A feeling of shame .. A jug .......' ~ what could be the relevance of these?

'And .. those words spoken by .. Keith that set everything off..' It is hard for him to remember 'the exact words', so the reader will have to wait to learn those, as well. We simply learn that 'they changed everything'. They were momentous in this story ~ but we do not know what they are.

What are they? Why are they so important? When will the author tell us?

These tantalising snippets simply leave us even more aware of what we don't know ~ of what we can only discover by reading the book.

Then the narrator decides that he will 'establish some order .. some sense of the connections'. Thus the reader is invited to accompany him down 'Memory Lane', or rather 'Amnesia Avenue', since he cannot remember, fully, and perhaps has blocked out some painful thoughts.

He decides that he has found 'the source of [his] unrest', so we can now go with him, to seek that source and solve the mystery ~ and find out about the terrible things that this old man half remembers about his boyhood.

The reader has his own questions which require answers. He has to accept the invitation and read on. He has been hooked.

In the first chapter of 'Spies', Michael Frayn encourages the reader to follow his story, by using techniques which act as triggers and hooks; thus reeling the reader in. It is a very effective beginning.


The novel, 'Spies', is set in World War II England.


An Overpowering 'Breath of Sweetness'?



Michael Frayn

Michael Frayn was born in London in 1933.
He is a playwright, a translator and an author and has worked as a reporter and columnist.

Frayn's works include:
Plays: 'Noises Off', 'Copenhagen', 'Democracy', 'Alphabetical Order', 'Clouds', 'Donkeys' Years', 'Make or Break', 'Benefactors' and 'Afterlife'.
Novels: 'Towards the End of the Morning', 'Headlong' and 'Spies', 'The Tin Men', 'The Russian Interpreter' and 'A Landing on the Sun'.
Translations: Items by Chekhov, Tolstoy and other Russian writers;
Film: TV films 'First and Last' and 'A Landing on the Sun'; the screenplay 'Clockwise'.
Other books:  'Stage Directions: Writing on Theatre 1970-2008' and 'Travels with a Typewriter'.

Like the young characters in his book, 'Spies',  Frayn would have been a child, in England, during the second world war.

'Spies'. was published in 2002.
It earned Frayn the 2002 Whitbread Novel Award as well as the 2003 Commonwealth Writers Prize

Heady Fragrance of Summer



Do you think that you will read 'Spies'?


See above

See above


Tricia Mason (author) from The English Midlands on April 17, 2012:

Thanks to those who answered my question, by voting:

Do you think that you will read Michael Frayn's 'Spies'?

The results at April 2012 are:

20% Yes, definitely

0% Probably

2% Possibly

0% I doubt it

14% Definitely not

63% I have already read it

49 people have voted in this poll.

Related Articles