When war broke out in 1914, Somerset Maugham was dispatched by the British Secret Service to Switzerland under the guise of completing a play. Multilingual, knowledgeable about many European countries, and a celebrated writer, Maugham had the perfect cover, and the assignment appealed to his love of romance, and of the ridiculous.
The stories collected in Ashenden are rooted in Maugham's own experiences as an agent, reflecting the ruthlessness and brutality of espionage, its intrigue and treachery, as well as its absurdity.
©1955 W. Somerset Maugham (P)2012 Audible, Ltd.
as the author notes, right at the beginning, this set of stories is loosely based on his own experiences in the british secret service during world war one. now maugham is a very readable author, even at his unreadable worst, by which i mean to say that it is entirely possible to be bored by him and even put to sleep by him, but he's never bad company. his short stories, some of which run to 40 pages or so, are almost never boring, even if they are pretty predictable. they were written for the common man or common hausfrau of the times, and so they are rarely risking giving you a mental blow-out. his best stories are the spy stories about the writer/agent "ashenden", which together form a terrific spy novel. it's easy to see how this book formed the template from which eric ambler and ian fleming would take their inspiration for their respective spies. well, on the other hand it must also be said that at the time when maugham wrote these stories both the readers and the author were pretty discreet about some matters, such as their homosexuality, whereas a modern reader can't help but notice that all these characters in the book are manifest closet gays. well, much the same could be said about the characters in thomas mann's novels and stories, but "ashenden"'s 40 pages at the sanatorium beat mann's 1000-or-so pages of the "magic mountain" hands down, so don't allow this observation to ruin the fun for you. this IS a terrific book, and the audio reader here does it justice, very nicely. of course at some later date you should try and read it yourself. as i was saying, maugham is always very pleasant company, and this is probably the best place to start getting acquainted with him.
"Dryly witty, with a splinter of ice at its heart"
Maugham is a master of social observation and controlled exposition. Here he puts his talents as an author to work to write about his activities as a British Secret Agent during the First World War. There is little in the way of Bond-like derring-do in this collection of separate tales as Maugham was serving more as a spymaster safely ensconced in Switzerland for the duration. He speaks of his agents and the various schemes he became involved with, usually at the instigation of his piratical Chief, the redoubtable "R", who reminds one of the half-mad Brigadier Ritchie-Hook in Evelyn Waugh's "Sword of Honour" trilogy. He works to uncover double agents working in Switzerland or to lure dangerous enemies in Germany by enticing them with patient trickery to cross into Allied territory - where they are promptly snapped up by the waiting authorities and just as promptly executed. Maugham allows himself a little regret over this, but very little. and not for long. There is a marvellous sequence towards the end where Maugham finds himself despatched to Russia with enormous amounts of money in an attempt to prevent the government from collapsing and seeking a separate peace with the Germans. The characters are no doubt based on real individuals he encountered which adds considerably to the piquancy of these tales.
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