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Fiction Review – Ashenden

Ashenden: the British Agent by W. Somerset Maugham

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)


These short stories are based on the author’s experiences as a spy during WWI. Prospective thrill-seekers are clearly warned off in Maugham’s introduction. He says, “The work of an agent in the Intelligence Department is on the whole extremely monotonous. A lot of it is uncommonly useless. The material it offers for stories is scrappy and pointless; the author has himself to make it coherent, dramatic and probable.”

The stories here have verbal dueling and furious thinking but are without car chases, gun play, or stuff blowing up. The fantastic characters would be familiar to readers who like John “Greenmantle” Buchan, such as the Hairless Mexican, femme fatale Giulia Lazzari, and hardcore Teuton Mrs. Caypor. In contrast to the earnest tone of writers like Buchan, Maugham writes in his usual bemused tone, always tolerant of flawed human nature.

I’ve read more of Maugham’s stories and novels than is perhaps healthy. I think, in terms of characterization, dialogue, and Maugham’s favorite themes (like abused love a la Of Human Bondage), these stories rank with his best like Cakes and Ale, The Narrow Corner, and The Razor’s Edge. Finally, for those into history of genres, with these stories Maugham unwittingly invented the genre of sophisticated espio-fiction, which Eric Ambler, John Le Carre and Alan Furst, among many others, later did so well.





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