Ashenden; or The British Agent – W. Somerset Maugham
I am always interested in reading books that had a transformational effect on their chosen genre. Ashenden, published in 1928, is one which had a profound influence on the later direction of spy fiction. It was also the first Maugham book I had read.
It is loosely based on Maugham’s own experiences in the espionage world during the First World War. The eponymous hero is sent to neutral Switzerland, a hot bed of international espionage, by his spy master, R, the first time such a character appears in spy fiction. Unlike the earlier books penned by the likes of John Buchan and William Le Queux, where the British spies are handsome, dashing, fearless adventurers fired by patriotism and foreigners are dastardly and repulsive in manners and action, most of Ashenden’s time is spent collecting and passing on information and Maugham paints most of his adversaries in a sympathetic and humane light.
Far from swashbuckling feats of extraordinary derring-do Ashenden’s world is full of blackmail and assassinations. A spy a la Maugham has lost his moral compass and is engaged in a life and death struggle, using whatever weapons or tactics that are available. There is no sense in the pages that Britain holds the moral high ground as is the case with Buchan. British operatives are no better or worse than their foreign counterparts.
Indeed, running through the pages is a wave of sympathy for those who might otherwise have been tagged as villains. A case in point is Guilia Lazzari who is blackmailed into luring her Indian nationalist lover, Chandra Lal, into France where the police will arrest him. On the horns of a dilemma Giulia finally agrees and Lal falls into the trap but is able to swallow some poison before falling into the hands of the British. Maugham’s narrative sympathises with Guilia and her plight whilst leaving Ashenden looking morally bankrupt.
Ashenden is not a novel per se but a series of interconnecting episodes and this is another distinguishing feature from many spy thrillers that had gone before and were to come. Not being plot led, Ashenden allows Maugham, a literary writer rather than a spy novelist after all, the room to develop his cast of characters. And what a collection they are. R is an enigmatic, matter-of-fact head of British Intelligence who despatches his charges to their uncertain futures with a cold, dispassionate warning; “there is just one thing I think you ought to know before you take this job. If you do well, you’ll get no thanks and if you get into trouble, you’ll get no help”.
Then there is the Hairless Mexican, a flamboyantly ruthless hired gun prone to the occasional unfortunate error, the British ambassador with a surprising past, the traitor, George Caypor, a devoted family man with a loving German wife, Anastasia Alexandrovna, a woman about town and a committed revolutionary, and my favourite character of all, Mr Harrington, whom Ashenden meets on a long train journey across Russia.
Ashenden finds the American a bore but can’t help admire his determination to conclude some business deals with the then Kerensky regime. Harrington is flushed with success that he has had his contracts signed, but the following day the government falls, violence hits the streets of Petrograd and Harrington meets his end in tragi-comic circumstances. The moral of the story is never worry about your dirty washing.Dry, humorous, emotionally distant, Ashenden is poles apart from Richard Hannay but sets the new standard for spies.
An entertaining, if disjointed, read.