Summer Book Club - Ashenden: Or the British Agent

Undercover in the Summer Sun

Ah, summer, my favourite day of the year. We really only need a slim volume for the Summer Book Club  (British humour). Joking aside, it's good to read a little, but not enough to hurt us, so we have a one-book only rule for the club each summer.

I considered À Rebours and the timeless appeal of aesthete Jean des Essientes turning his back on the barbarity and vulgarity of the modern world to live a life of splendid isolation — attractive. In the end, I've gone with Ashenden: Or the British Agent this year — more our style.

Ashenden was written by W. Somerset Maugham in 1927 as a series of interconnected short stories relating to the eponymous secret agent. Ashenden is considered to be the archetype for a certain Mr Bond and other literary spies that followed. (Ashenden's boss is only referred to as 'Colonel R', for example.)

William worked as an agent for British Intelligence in the First World War. His reputation as a writer and his worldly disposition gave him good cover in the field. In short, he had some insight into the subject matter of his novel, which is considered to be a thinly-veiled (if exaggerated) memoir; so much so, in fact, it is rumoured that fourteen additional short stories were destroyed in the national interest on the recommendation of Churchill.

Because it's Maugham, and because of the time it was written , the prose style and character studies should be excellent. We also get to travel around the world at a languorous early-twentieth century pace — to Geneva, Naples, Paris, Petrograd — with the manners and customs of the time. Of the titles in the collection of stories, I'm particularly intrigued by The Hairless Mexican and The Traitor.

Of the novel, the Daily Telegraph wrote: 'Thoughtful spy novels began with Somerset Maugham's Ashenden, featuring a detached hero on a journey to disillusion, a process brought to its apotheosis by le Carre via Greene.'

I'm looking forward to it.

Tweed TV - Ashenden

The BBC produced a four-part series based on the novel in 1991 starring Alex Jennings in the title role, with the wonderful Joss Ackland and dear old Alan Bennett co-starring. I think we need to take a look at this too, chaps.


  1. I've never read this but always sort of meant to get round to reading it. Perhaps I shall join you in reading, once I have turned my attention to Anthony Horowitz's continuation of the Bond series.

    I remember the TV series, when I was much younger. I seem to recall quite enjoying it.

    You may also wish to check out Hitchcock's 'Secret Agent', with a youthful John Gielgud in the title role and Peter Lorre in some outrageous costumes.

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