Ashenden, or The British Agent
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Ashenden, or The British Agent

3.76 of 5 stars 3.76  ·  rating details  ·  876 ratings  ·  93 reviews

A collection of stories 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.


Hardcover, 304 pages
Published 1941 by Doubleday (first published 1927)
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Kim

What a gem this is! Maugham, who served in the British secret service during World War I, cleverly combines autobiography and satire in these interconnected tales of European espionage. Crisp prose, memorable (if somewhat exaggerated) characters, humour, poignancy and a subtle dig at modernist fiction make this book an absolute delight. Knowing that Ashenden inspired the creation of fictional spies such as James Bond is an added bonus, even though Ashenden and Bond could not be more different as...more
Tim Pendry
Ashenden is a thinly disguised memoire of Maugham's own period in wartime (1914-1918) secret service work. For all his customary detachment, he is very aware of and interested in the moral issues involved in such work.

Maugham cannot write badly but this book is still (structurally) an imperfectly strung together group of short stories and novellas. It can also be rather self-consciously literary at times.

Famous as a precursor of Fleming's Bond and influencing an early Hitchcock film, it is rath...more
Dfordoom
W. Somerset Maugham’s Ashenden, or the British Agent is an example of one of my favourite genres, the early 20th century espionage tale. While spy stories set during World War 2 and during the Cold War have their charms I find the earlier tales set during the First Word War or in the years leading up to that war much more appealing.

Ashenden, or the British Agent, first published in 1928, is a series of linked stories relating the adventures of a writer of comic plays who is recruited into Britis...more
Nigeyb
I was very impressed by this book. It was the first book I read by W. Somerset Maugham. Maugham's beautiful writing evokes the life of a spy and is based on his own spying experiences during World War 1.

Through a series of interrelated short stories the reader gains an appreciation of Maugham's spying experiences. He is insightful about those he meets, their motivations, and the extent to which they might be friend or foe.

In the course of these stories, Maugham's protagonist Ashenden (a self p...more
Dave Morris
The flipside of the 007 story. Just as they say the real life of a policeman is about slogging away at a case, not being a lucky maverick, so Ashenden's life as a secret agent is mostly taken up with watching his friends and foes and trying to tell one from the other. Action, when it comes, is unexpected and feels as though taken from life. There are no rooftop chases or gun battles here, but rather touching character studies of the people who live and die in the world of espionage.
Alexander Arsov
W. Somerset Maugham

Ashenden: or the British Agent

Vintage Classics, Paperback, 2000.*


First published by Heinemann in 1928.

* Contains the preface written in 1934 for The Collected Edition published by Heinemann between 1934 and 1969.

Table of contents:

Preface
1. R.
2. A Domiciliary Visit
3. Miss King
4. The Hairless Mexican
5. The Dark Woman
6. The Greek
7. A Trip to Paris
8. Giulia Lazzari
9. Gustav
10. The Traitor
11. Behind the Scenes
12. His Excellency
13. The Flip of a Coin
14. A Chance Acquaintance
15. Love...more
Scott
If you like to seep into a book while you’re soaking in the tub, I think you’ll find that W. Somerset Maugham’s Ashenden (1927) mixes well with suds and hot water. Based on his experiences as a spy during the First World War, this collection of gritty stories shows Maugham as a connoisseur of odd human temperament. The book is Maugham’s tour through a grungy world of assassins, traitors, whores, bores, contortionists, conceited nitwits, passionate revolutionaries, and other semi-savory types tha...more
Manish
During the First World War, Maugham with his reputation of being a relatively known writer was sent by British Intelligence to Switzerland for a series of assignments. Ashenden, though cited as a work of fiction is almost Maugham's memoirs of that period. In his inimitable style laced with razor sharp observations, the stories in this collection somehow end up focusing less on the finer aspects of espionage and more on Maugham's favourite topic - the contradictions of human nature.

To think that...more
Karen Mardahl
This is a rather dated book (World War I), but worth reading for the language and the time-capsule effect of the stories. It is an interesting glimpse into another time and another world. Or is it? The last story has a comment about the powers that be wanting to get major tasks done (like an assassination or a war), but don't want any trace of blood on their hands. Sounds like governments of today!

The language is quite something. It is dated, but still the eloquence is lovely to hear (audiobook...more
Portia S
This is a collection of short stories ( can be treated as a collection of short stories, except there are some repeated characters, so you can't read them out of order) relaying the fictionalised conquests of W. Somerset Maugham during WW1 where he was taking in under the service of the British Secret Service.

Sounds rather exciting doesn't it? It is.

The different tales take you on a journey of the playwright only known as Ashenden Somerville ( it is insinuated that this is not his real name) w...more
Jim
It's easy to see why this one is considered an archetype of espionage fiction. The fact that the book was first published back in the late 1920s means that some of the dialogue and narrative will appear dated and awkward by contemporary standards, but the tale of a British spy operating on the continent during World War I remains a classic. Alfred Hitchcock was behind a movie based on parts of the story, but I could just as easily see it being tackled by Orson Welles in his prime. A fun and inte...more
Pascale
Somerset Maugham is renowned for his depth of understanding of human nature, and this book certainly exemplifies that. This fictionalized account of his years as a spy during WWI presents many memorable characters: Miss King, an English governess who hates her home country, but asks for the narrator after she has a stroke, with the possible intention of confessing a change of heart or even imparting information; the Hairless Mexican, a fiery revolutionary of grotesque appearance who nonetheless...more
Karen
Maugham is a great writer. This is more a collection of stories than a novel, but there is some cohesion and connection between the stories. It was interesting to read about the inside workings of the agents. At times I was appalled at the rational decision making about events that cost innocent lives, but at the same time I realize that that it was a time of war and they saw themselves as a part of that. Overall, a fascinating read.
Scott Miller
I'm a big Maugham fan and for that reason enjoyed this semi-autobiographical book. It's not a classic spy genre work though, more a collection of unrelated short stories. Still, it was subimely written and a joy to read.
Kanu
It starts out a bit slow. There was a preface in the beginning where Maugham writes about the trouble in making a narrative out of a real period in life, concluding that a writer ought to actually make a tight narrative than describe things as they occurred and leave it to the reader to connect everything.

I guess that's why the beginning of the novel felt separate from the rest of it. It felt like a drawn-out establishing shot, and I confess I didn't like it much. Soon enough, though, each chapt...more
Corey
Somewhere between linked short stories and a full-fledged novel this is first rate espionage fiction. One can see its influence on Graham Greene, Anthony Powell, even perhaps Ian Fleming.
Susan
Ashenden is a playwright who works for the British secret service as a spy in Europe during WWI. It’s based on Maugham’s own experiences. This is billed these days as a novel, but it’s also been published as Volume 3 of the complete short stories of W. Somerset Maugham. Ashenden is detached and sophisticated. He meets with shady characters who provide information, unmasks frauds and lures enemy agents to their deaths. There’s no plot as such, except in the individual stories, or some times in a...more
Feliks
Its a wonderful book; quintessentially Maugham. More a Somerset Maugham book than an 'espionage' book; that is; the writing is more about the type of Englishman Ashenden is, than about spycraft. Filled with those great Maugham observations and gestures. Its all Written in that neat, concise, clipped style which is the English equivalent to Hemingway. There are some phrases and asides which will quite make you stop and digest; for they are so casual yet sharp.

Maugham is interested in telling us a...more
Sarah Sammis
Ashenden or the British Agent by W. Somerset Maugham is somewhere between a short story collection and a novel that chronicles a series of adventures of failed writer turned spy, John Ashenden.

With the characters who recur within the stories make these the book gel. Unfortunately the stories are inconsistent in quality and without an overall sense of progression, the book isn't as satisfying as it should be.

Although my reaction to Ashenden as a whole was lukewarm, there were moments that I reall...more
Graham Powell
ASHENDEN is the story of an author who's recruited as a spy during WWI. Based closely on the experiences of Maugham himself, but rearranged to suit the demands of fiction, it's not so much a novel as a series of vignettes, character studies really, and though there's plot, there's not much action.

As long as you don't expect a thriller in the James Bond style, this book is engrossing. It certainly never lets you forget that spying is a very nasty business indeed.
Lillian
Professional writer Ashenden is asked to join the British Intelligence on the premise that he would be able to go about neutral counties without attracting attention and he would find useful material for a writer of fiction. Ashenden consents and thus begins a life of espionage and intrigue taking him from Geneva to France to Italy and Russia.
This, however, is not your typical spy story. Maugham presents a vivid portrait of the daily life of dangerous men and subtle women, espionage agents, dou...more
Tim Adler
Maugham is a superlative craftsman and, to my mind, Ashenden shows him at the peak of his art; a collection of short stories up there with Chekhov or Raymond Carver. Sometimes nothing much happens. But phrases stick with you long after you have finished reading this book. Highly recommended.
David Orphal
Really fun book.

I got ahold of this after reading in Young Philby, by Robert Littell. In that book, as Kim is recruited into the British secret service he asks if there is some sort of instructions or a manual he could read. His recruiter recommends this book. About a week later I read in another soirée that MI6 really used these stories as required reading during training.

These semi-autobiographical short stories about being a spy during the First World War

What a time to be a spy!
Amy
Short, witty, loosely connected stories following the British writer / spy Ashenden as he is sent around the world on secret missions. None of the stories feature particularly complex feats of espionage or gruesome violence. I just really liked Ashenden (who is a thinly veiled version of Maugham): Shy and easily embarrassed, he nonetheless is a competent gentleman spy with a dry sense of humor that allows him to be detached and see the absurdity in his work. As a writer, he appreciates art and h...more
Katharine Holden
I picked Ashenden off the Red Wing, MN, library shelves because I love The Secret Agent, the film version starring a young John Gielgud as Ashenden the spy and Peter Lorre as another spy, a supposed Mexican general. Of course, that film's story is only based on a few pages from this book. I'm not a fan of Maugham. I barely survived the pompous and wordy The Razor's Edge and vowed to read no more Maugham. But there are bits in this episodic book that I admired. The last section featuring Mr. Harr...more
Kathleen Resendes
Just finished my first Maugham book. Interesting. Like no other spy novel I've read. It is a collection of loosely connected short stories centering around agent Ashendens role as a super spy during the World War Two. The stories seem to center partly on the actual event Ashenden is involved in, partly on the people surrounding his activity and the physical setting of the event. Looking back the reader actually gets very few details about his actual job he has been assigned. We do learn about pe...more
Tony
ASHENDEN. (1951). W. Somerset Maugham. ***.
This is a collection of seven short stories featuring Ashenden, an intelligence agent working for the British government during WW II. They reflect the real life activities of Maugham during the war, and Ashenden is his alter ego. The cover he uses is that he is working out of the country in order to finish writing his latest play. In all, Ashenden is boring. Maugham never manages to instill any sense of excitement into the character or any of the plots...more
Marti
Sort of a misnomer to call these mysteries or spy stories. Really, they're character sketches, with Ashenden simply observing people and listening to their stories. Interesting at times but not amazing.
Sarah
Like all of Maugham's books, it was lucid, elegant, and displayed an impressive understanding of humanity. It was also fascinating to get an idea of what Maugham's experiences as an intelligence offer entailed, however fictionalized. I also appreciate getting a non-sensationalized espionage novel.

The fact that it was broken up into what basically amounted to a series of short stories meant that I didn't get as sucked in to it as I would have a straight-up novel, but it was a good format for read...more
Ruth
I never think Maugham gets the writing creds he deserves. He is funny and straightforward and always tells a good story. This was one of my favorites.
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4176632
William Somerset Maugham was born in Paris in 1874. He spoke French even before he spoke a word of English, a fact to which some critics attribute the purity of his style.

His parents died early and, after an unhappy boyhood, which he recorded poignantly in 'Of Human Bondage' , Maugham became a qualified physician. But writing was his true vocation. For ten years before his first success, he alm...more
More about W. Somerset Maugham...
Of Human Bondage The Razor's Edge The Painted Veil The Moon and Sixpence Cakes and Ale

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“Mr Harrington was a bore. He exasperated Ashenden, and enraged him; he got on his nerves, and drove him to frenzy. But Ashenden did not dislike him. His self-satisfaction was enormous but so ingenuous that you could not resent it; his conceit was so childlike that you could only smile at it.” 1 likes
“-Hay cierta elegancia en malgastar el tiempo -repuso Ashenden-. Cualquier cretino es capaz de despilfarrar dinero, pero cuando uno gasta su propio tiempo tiene el placer de tirar una cosa que no tiene precio.” 1 likes
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