Frayn specifically sets Spies in a London cul-de-sac during the second World War, what Stephen calls “the Duration,” to show how the war affects every aspect of life in the Close.
Immediately evident in the novel is the war’s physical effect on the provincial landscape of the town. On his return to the Close, Stephen initially makes a note of how even the sky is different from when he was a child, when it was constantly painted with searchlights and flares. War has also left a distinct mark on the land: the dirty pig bins that line the Avenue, the grimy Cottages, and the barren Barns all demonstrate the destructiveness of the War not only at the front, but also at home. The ominous sight of the bombed remnants of Miss Durrant’s house right in the middle of the Close is just one of the many presences that serve as a constant reminder to the neighborhood of the impending war threat.All of these contribute to creating a sense of paranoia in the Close, and the plot of Spies itself feeds off that paranoia, which is specifically pointed towards the Germans, and begins with an innocent child’s intimation that his own mother could be involved in German espionage.
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However, paranoia is not restricted only to Keith, but is widely manifest among all the families in the Close. For example, the Haywards store their car in the garage, disassembled from its wheels, to prevent the Germans from taking it away. Neighbors also call the police to investigate anything that seems remotely suspicious, such as the “peeping Tom” that apparently visits Auntie Dee’s house.
As the main enemy of Britain in World War II, the Germans become a symbol of evil for Stephen, Keith, and the rest of the people living in the Close. In fact, the novel is studded with instances of British antagonism against the Germans, which seem even more potent since they are articulated through such a young and innocent voice, that of Stephen. Any military accomplishment—by Keith’s father and Uncle Peter—is described as glorious for specifically “killing Germans.” Stephen asserts that Germans have an “evil ingenuity for which they were notorious,” and his obsession with germs partially stems from the fact that they were “presumably so called because they were as evil and insidious as Germans.” In addition, Stephen uses “Germanness” as a way to describe the identifying essence of the mysterious man that Keith’s mother is hiding.
The War also has a profound effect on the households and families of the novel. First, it sends many fathers and sons away, like the Berrills’ father, Uncle Peter, and the McAfees’ and the Averys’ sons. Thus it is telling when, in reference to the Berrill girls, “everyone says they’re running wild” after their father left for the war. The war causes disturbance in the home and introduces different pressure points that threaten the stability of the family. Although Stephen dismisses most of Barbara’s chattiness as girly gossip, her comment that “lots of ladies have boyfriends while everyone’s daddies are away” reveals the specter of infidelity that haunts the home and exemplifies the social imbalance that is created by the war.
And Stephen’s brief consideration that Barbara’s gossip might be true displays another kind of paranoia—one that questions the loyalty and trust within families—that the war introduces into people’s lives.