Opening with narrator Stephen Wheatley smelling a vaguely unpleasant smell that triggers the memory of a fateful time in his childhood, this story tells of boys Keith and Stephen, their friendship and what their curiousity during WWII cost them and others. As Stephen travels back to the Close he lived on during the war years, he remembers Keith as being the driving force behind all that the two boys did together and the catalyst for their fateful game of spying on Keith's mother whom Keith avers is a German spy. The two boys hide out in a thick privet bush, thinking they are unobserved, trying to mark Mrs. Hayward's comings and goings, and eventually tailing her as best they can. Older narrator Stephen interjects occasionally and the reader is comfortably sure that he or she knows more than young Stephen so when the denouement occurs, it is a somewhat unexpected twist (although we do know it a step ahead of Stephen). It is what our narrator casually reveals after the story of the imagination of young boys that somehow shocks the reader even more.
Frayn builds tension slowly and inexorably throughout the narrative, skillfully adding a slight menace to every action observed or taken. As the reader, you are addressed in the second person, as if older Stephen is narrating his story directly to you and this technique serves to make you a confidante, an insider in the novel itself. Stephen is definitely a more sympathetic character than Keith, not surprising given that Stephen is our narrator. But Frayn also reveals enough about Keith for the reader to understand and feel somewhat sorry for the stoic, rather condescending and unpleasant boy he is. A remarkably surprising book, this is one that will probably stay with me for quite a while thanks both to an unusual plot and to the masterful writing although I'm still not sure I particularly liked it.