Ashenden, a collection of 16 interconnected stories, is based on W. Somerset Maugham’s own experiences as a British secret agent in Switzerland and Russia during World War I. When first published, the stories seemed so authentic that Winston Churchill accused Maugham of breaching the British Official Secrets Act. As a consequence, the author burned 14 unpublished Ashenden texts. The collection is extremely important in the development of British espionage fiction, and both John le Carr and Len Deighton give Ashenden as a source of inspiration for their novels. What makes the stories innovative is that, in contrast to the lurid adventures depicted in the spy fiction of E. Phillips Oppenheimer and William le Queux, the action in the Ashenden stories is often unglamorous, inconclusive, and even anticlimactic.
The stories are narrated in the third person but almost exclusively give the point of view of the protagonist, Ashenden, “a writer by profession,” who is recruited to work for British intelligence during World War I. Ashenden’s experiences as an agent are recounted in a predominantly unemotional language, appropriate to the rather reserved and intellectual protagonist. However, he is not without feeling and often sympathizes with the predicaments and sufferings of the other principal characters (sometimes his enemies). Plots sometimes extend over two or more stories (for example, “The Hairless Mexican” and “The Greek”), but the collection as a whole is deliberately fragmentary. Endings are often ambiguous (“Miss King” and “The Flip of a Coin”) or inconclusive (“Gustav” and “A Chance Acquaintance”). Ashenden’s activities are usually dishonorable— they involve blackmail, lying, and aiding a murderer. Settings are frequently drab—small Swiss and French towns, shabby streets, and second-rate hotels—although the last six stories have the aura of great political events in the background and glamorous settings, such as a luxuriously furnished British Embassy. A notable feature of the collection is that several stories contain further stories within them, for example “The Hairless Mexican,” “His Excellency,” and “Love and Russian Literature.”
“R” tells briefly of Ashenden’s almost casual recruitment by his spymaster, the enigmatic and unscrupulous Colonel R. Two linked stories, “A Domiciliary Visit” and “Miss King,” show Ashenden at work in Geneva. In the first tale, two Swiss policemen question him in his hotel room; in the second he plays cards with a beautiful Austrian agent and two anti-British Egyptians, after which he is called to the deathbed of a elderly English lady, who, although she has always professed a dislike for Britain, dies with the word “England” on her lips. Ashenden, however, has no idea what this dying word means for Miss King. “The Hairless Mexican” and “The Greek” depict an encounter with a sinister Mexican assassin who, with Ashenden’s help, murders an innocent man by mistake. In “A Trip to Paris” and “Giulia Lazzari” Ashenden and R blackmail a prostitute in order to entrap an Indian nationalist. “Gustav” presents espionage as a cynical way of making money, and in “The Traitor” Ashenden again tricks a British traitor to his death. The remaining six stories show Ashenden’s work in an unnamed country and in Russia just before the Revolution of 1917. The stories center on a British ambassador who, despite his glittering success, thinks his life a failure; a determined Polish nationalist; a beautiful Russian woman who is Ashenden’s former lover; and the talkative and prim American businessman Mr. Harrington, whose death, because of his refusal to abandon his dirty washing, is representative of the sordid and ironic events that these cynical, but not unfeeling, stories depict.
Bloom, Clive, ed. Spy Thrillers: From Buchan to Le Carr . Basingstoke, England: Macmillan, 1990.
Maugham, W. Somerset. Ashenden. 1918. London: Mandarin, 1991