Ashenden: or the British Agent

Ashenden: or the British Agent



The Pequod Review:

W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) is today mostly remembered for his autobiographical novel Of Human Bondage (1915), but his short story collection Ashenden is one of his most impressive and underrated books. Maugham's stories are told from the perspective of an intelligence agent (Ashenden, no doubt a stand-in for Maugham himself, who had a similar role for the British Secret Service during World War I) and involve various counter-espionage activities, including late-night meet-ups with foreign defectors, the interception of valuable intelligence papers, and political assassinations.

What is most remarkable about Maugham's stories is the way he portrays the individuals involved in highly realistic ways. The characters of Ashenden are not glamorous heroes or evil bad guys; instead, they are flawed individuals carrying out jobs that are often monotonous, unethical, degrading, or ineffective. These include a respected British spy who fabricates his own intelligence reports, an Italian prostitute who turns her back on the only man she ever loved, and a disillusioned diplomat who opens up to Ashenden about a tragic love affair. Even Ashenden himself is not as brave as he presents himself in public:

He had often heard people tell him that he possessed character and he reflected that people judge hastily in the affairs of life because they judge on insufficient evidence: they had never seen him in a hot, but diminishingly hot, bath.

The missions themselves are often just as dishonorable as their participants. In one scene, Maugham describes a planned attack on an Austrian munitions facility that will result in the death of several innocent workers. Ashenden laments the fact that senior war planners were able to distance themselves from the operation in order to ensure their consciences remain clear:

Ashenden had qualms and he was conscious that it would be a relief if on reaching the hotel he found that Herbartus had left. That would give him a respite. The Germans had blown up factories in the Allied countries and there was no reason why they should not be served in the same manner. It was a legitimate act of war. It not only hindered the manufacture of arms and munitions, but also shook the morale of the non-combatants. It was not of course a thing that the big-wigs cared to have anything to do with. Though ready enough to profit by the activities of obscure agents of whom they had never heard, they shut their eyes to dirty work so that they could put their clean hands on their hearts and congratulate themselves that they had never done anything that was unbecoming to men of honour...

Ashenden shrugged his shoulders; and now, recalling the conversation, he shrugged them again. They were all like that. They desired the end, but hesitated at the means. They were willing to take advantage of an accomplished fact, but wanted to shift on to someone else the responsibility of bringing it about.

Maugham's prose has often been criticized for its blandness, but I find him to be a supremely clear and lucid writer, with moments of characterization and setting that are quite strong:

She was a tiny old woman, just a few little bones in a bag of wrinkled skin, and her face was deeply furrowed. It was obvious that she wore a wig, it was of a mousy brown, very elaborate and not always set quite straight, and she was heavily made up, with great patches of scarlet on her withered cheeks and brilliantly red lips. She dressed fantastically in gay clothes that looked as though they had been bought higgledy-piggledy from an old-clothes shop and in the daytime she wore enormous, extravagantly girlish hats. She tripped along in very small smart shoes with very high heels. Her appearance was so grotesque that it created consternation rather than amusement. People turned in the street and stared at her with open mouths.


At that time Geneva was a hot-bed of intrigue and its home was the hotel at which Ashenden was staying. There were Frenchmen there, Italians and Russians, Turks, Rumanians, Greeks and Egyptians. Some had fled their country, some doubtless represented it. There was a Bulgarian, an agent of Ashenden’s, whom for greater safety he had never even spoken to in Geneva; he was dining that night with two fellow-countrymen and in a day or so, if he was not killed in the interval, might have a very interesting communication to make. Then there was a little German prostitute, with china-blue eyes and a doll-like face, who made frequent journeys along the lake and up to Berne, and in the exercise of her profession got little titbits of information over which doubtless they pondered with deliberation in Berlin.

Maugham's stories are not of uniformly high quality; some are deep character studies while others are just abbreviated scenes (often with a plot twist at the end). But they add up to a very different picture of espionage activities than any other spy writer was producing at the time. Of course that would later change with the sordid novels of John le Carre and Graham Greene, both of whom were strongly influenced by Maugham. Highly recommended.