Ashenden; or, the British Agent, by W. Somerset Maugham is not the first secret agent novel in English. Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent (1907) may hold that honor. Arthur Conan Doyle’s story, “His Last Bow,” (1917) which has Holmes doing secret agent work and outwitting a German secret agent, also precedes Maugham’s work, though Doyle’s work is a short story.
Maugham’s novel, though not the first secret agent novel, was quite influential. Later spy novelists, such as John LeCarre, Ian Fleming, Eric Ambler and Len Deighton, all give a nod to Maugham as inspiring their own work. For instance, James Bond’s boss at MI-6 is “M,” just as the book's titular character Ashenden’s boss in this novel is “R.” Apparently, the idea of using a letter began with Sir Marshall Smith-Cumming, the first chief of MI-6, who signed all documents with his initial (“C”), and the use of “C” continued, as many read it as “chief.”
Maugham himself was a secret agent during WWI and he based Ashenden’s experiences on his own during the war. There is a lot of the British Public School in Ashenden – he is well read, always polite, and has a wry way of looking at the world. There’s quite a lot of Maugham in Ashenden.
The novel has more of an edge than do British cozy mysteries (where everyone is polite and the murder/trouble, once solved, leaves no bitter aftertaste). In one chapter, Ashenden teams up with a colorful Mexican assassin, nicknamed the “Hairless Mexican,” though he prefers to be called “the General,” to eliminate a German spy. The information Ashenden gets, however, is not clear and the Mexican kills a man entirely innocent. Only after the man has been eliminated does Ashenden get information from MI-6 exculpating him. This does not bother the amoral General, but regret lingers in Ashenden’s mind.
At another point, Ashenden must use the love of an Indian separatist, Chandra Lal, who has been working with the Germans in hopes of forcing the British to give up India, for Giulia Lazzari, a cabaret entertainer, to get the man to cross from Switzerland into France, where he can be apprehended by British authorities for trial and execution. In this adventure, Lazzari appeals to Ashenden’s (and British) ideals in suggesting that it is wrong to use a man’s affections to trap him. Ashenden, however, remains impassive through Lazzari’s appeal, pointing out in turn that Lazzari’s own continued good fortune is dependent on her assistance, a point neither he, nor the British government will bend on. The capture, trial and execution of Lal happens “off-stage,” with little mention by Ashenden. Ashenden has grown hard in the service of his country.
In another case, Ashenden must trick a very friendly and engaging Britisher, living in Switzerland with his German wife to wait out the war, into returning to Britain, where he will be tried and executed for passing secrets to the Germans. The striking thing in this whole episode is that Ashenden clearly likes the man, and is quite taken by the affection of husband and wife towards each other. Again, we do not see the result of Ashenden’s actions, but we do see the German wife becoming increasingly despondent at her husband’s protracted absence, and the couple’s little Dachshund begins to howl in anguish over his missing master. Ashenden has no doubts about the man’s guilt, and feels little regret for his actions. And yet, we readers get no clear evidence of the man’s guilt, and after the mistake with the Mexican, we wonder if another mistake was made here. And by witnessing the wife’s slip into despair and the Dachshund howling for his master, Maugham makes the whole scene very disturbing.
The book’s concluding chapters deal with a mission to Russia after the abdication of Nicholas II, when the Russian government, now a republic under Alexander Kerensky, to try to keep Russia in the war. We know from history that Britain failed in its attempt to keep Russia in the war. And so, we know that Ashenden’s efforts will be a failure. What we don’t get is a clear sense of Ashenden getting out of Russia as the Bolsheviks take power. In the final chapter (SPOILER ALERT), we largely follow the adventures of a Mr. Harrington, an American businessman who is loud and proud of being an American, and who loves (much to Ashenden’s annoyance) to read aloud, something Ashenden sees as akin to barbarism. In the final chapter, Harrington travels about Petrograd trying to get hold of his laundry which has not been returned, and the book concludes with the sobering image of Harrington dead in the snow, tightly holding his recovered (but still unwashed) laundry.
The book does not hold together as a novel. It is more a series of stories which are grouped together as the adventures of Ashenden. That said, the book is a pleasant read (Maugham was a master of English prose style and the short story), and suggests, if it does not outright condemn, the various compromises made in wartime.
If you read the book, be sure to see Alfred Hitchcock’s film, Secret Agent, starring John Gielgud as Ashenden and Peter Lorre as the General, which is based on some of the novel. The film like the book does a good job of stressing the messiness of the spy business.