Secret Agent

There's an odd link between my previous read, Robert K. Massie's Nicholas and Alexandra, and W. Somerset Maugham's Ashenden. As a young man in the First World War Maugham served with British intelligence. As Britain and France desperately tried to shore up the Provisional Government of Kerensky trying to prevent Russia from dropping out of the war, Maugham was in Russia working for the intelligence service. His efforts would come to nothing when the Bolsheviks swept the Provisional Government from power in October 1917. Although he got some great copy for Ashenden witnessing the Russian revolution at first hand.

Ashenden's been sitting on my bookshelves for some time, then over Christmas I saw Hitchcock's early thriller Secret Agent, featuring a lovely cast including John Gielgud, then at the height of his fame on the London stage, the ever beautiful Madeleine Carroll, and a gloriously over the top performance from Peter Lorre, who had yet to make the move to Hollywood. Secret Agent, as you've probably guessed by now is based on Ashenden.

This book was a surprising treat, I absolutely loved it. It's a great spy story, and those later top-drawer spy writers Ian Fleming (R., Ashenden's boss is the spitting image of the later M), John Le Carre and Alan Furst, all owe a debt of gratitude to Maugham. Often laconic "'He's known as the hairless Mexican.' 'Why?' 'Well, he's Mexican and hairless.' 'Just so.'" a great mixture of humour and gung-ho adventure along with Maugham's gift for descriptive backgrounds makes this a fun read with the occasional serious moment. Written in 1928, it's in some ways a period piece but also manages to be vibrantly alive and believable.

One of the reasons it's so successful is that it is really a collection of short stories joined together by the central figure of Ashenden, the spy. So Maugham is free to go off in different directions and experiment with slightly different kinds of writing. A must-read for any spy afficionado, and great fun. Grab it if you can.


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