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The brilliance of Michael Frayn’s play Copenhagen is that it takes science—one of those fields that is well-respected but usually avoided by literary types—and makes it into something those of us more interested in Chaucer than Bohr can relate to. And Frayn’s Booker Prize-nominated novel, Headlong, an expansive tale of an art historian obsessed with a Bruegal canvas (it’s better than it sounds), continued Frayn’s streak of walking the fine line between standoffish New Yorker sensibilities and insights into, gulp, the human condition. Which is why Frayn’s new Spies: A Novel is such a letdown. A book far more interested in language than ideas, Spies reads like a very early draft of a potentially more interesting work. It’s a mystery of sorts, taking us ploddingly through a childhood game of espionage that eventually leads the young protagonist into the more complicated world of adult indiscretion. Throughout the book, Frayn hits us over the head with signifiers—color-coded belts that are supposed to show class difference, the intoxicating smell of privet—that might have been interesting if they weren’t repeated so often. Instead, additionally burdened with a clumsy conclusion, the book leaves readers to wonder what might have been had Frayn found a real idea or two around which to structure his unfocused—if occasionally affecting—and ultimately desperate prose. You can ask him yourself when he appears at 7 p.m. Thursday, April 25, at the National Press Club’s Ballroom, 529 14th St. NW, 13th Floor. $5. For tickets call (202) 347-3686. (Brian Montopoli)