|About the Book|
Somerset Maughams Ashenden: Or the British Agent (1927) is the first spy novel written by someone who actually worked for an intelligence agency. It is also the work of a writer who had the knack for creating a vivid character in few words, and then allowing that character to reveal his story—and usually more of himself than he would wish—to the attentive reader. Maugham—both in this book and in the cosmopolitan atmosphere of his short stories—was a great influence on spy novelists in general and on Eric Ambler in particular, whose masterpiece A Coffin for Dimitrios would not have been the same without Maugham.His locales—Geneva, Naples, Paris, Basle, Lucerne, Petrograd—are efficiently and convincingly created, and provide a fine backdrop for Ashendens encounters with many memorable characters: R, the enigmatic head of British Intelligence- “The Hairless Mexican,” a flamboyant agent employed as an assassin by the British- traitor and good family man George Caypor and his devoted German wife- “His Excellency,” an ambassador with a surprising past- Anastasia Alexandrovna, flighty lover and committed revolutionary- and Mr. Harrington, the forthright and foolhardy American seeking business contacts within the new revolutionary Russian government.In fact, there are so many different locales, so many colorful people participating in so many unconnected stratagems, revealing themselves in so many distinct conversations, that it would not be surprising if a reader concluded that Ashenden was no more than a collection of themed short stories printed in chapters to make it look like a novel.This particular reader, however, thinks it qualifies as a novel. Not only does Ashendens profession help unify the many revelations of deception and the hidden aspects of character recorded here, but the “Great War” helps unify the narrative too. The book begins in the heart of Western Europe, in neutral territory, and progresses from the carrying of small bits of information, to the arrangement of assassinations and betrayals, to violent disruptions in the Russian streets in the days before the Soviet revolution. Throughout the novel, the morality of Ashendens sphere of action become increasingly compromised until at the end he arrives at the gates of a newly unstable modern world.If you decide to read this, strive to obtain an edition (like this one) that includes not only the 1928 novel but the preface to the 1941 edition. By 1941, the 67 year-old Maugham had slipped out of favor, dismissed as a plot-driven popular writer who concocted neat little fictions far removed from the complexities of modern existence, from the loose ends and sloppiness of life. His preface is a spirited—although prickly-- defense of the traditional literary concepts of “a beginning, a middle and an end.” Maugham dismisses the assertion that “fiction should imitate life,” asserting that this is “merely a literary theory like another.”In our post-post-modernist atmosphere, this preface has something to say to us. If we can claim no longer that it speaks “the truth,” I still think it safe to claim this much: what Maugham says here now shines with a newly burnished validity.