Maugham worked as a British spy during the World War I and so was uniquely placed to narrate us a set of tales set in the world of spying and espionage.
The tales themselves don’t quite regale us in a manner we are used to expect from Maugham’s spiel. He gives us couple of good starters though – the Head who wanted to recruit him started by telling him a story of a prominent Minister losing sensitive files to a femme fatale who beguiled him with her charm. Prior to that he also shared the old story of losing a box of important files on the bus.
Post recruitment Maugham was given the following as parting advice – ‘There’s just one thing I think you ought to know before you take on this job. And don’t forget it. If you do well you’ll get no thanks and if you get into trouble you’ll get no help. Does that suit you?’ ‘Perfectly.’ was the answer and with that Maugham set about discovering adventures that he documented in the present series.
Maugham tells the spy tale as it is – there is little of glamour, much of the work is useless, most of the time and energy is a sheer waste. Yet the writer in him found it interesting enough to derive enough raw material to shape and present us 6 short stories in typical Maugham style. There is a loose element of continuity and it makes sense to read the tales sequentially – I daresay you can still read them on a standalone basis as well. What they lack is the sheer entertainment value of his more popular tale and often Maugham’s trademark formula of a story having a beginning, middle and end is not quite there.
Ashenden is no James Bond – indeed a spy’s world is far from being glamorous. But he does not tip it over to the other extreme as well wherein we have Graham Greene, John Le Carre etch it out to be a drab and sordid life. In fact Ashenden is far from that – he moves in the best of social circles, interacts with the crème la crème in society and is not found wanting to derive the material comforts in his life.
Well the 6 tales that are narrated briefly are as follows –
- Miss King – Maugham build up the suspense like nobody’s business. In the short story he has captured multiple characters and one is just itching for some action to happen to break open the story. It seems to happen finally – imagine being called in the dead of the night to attend to a potential spy who is on her death-bed. We expect a big dénouement to emerge but no such luck. The lady utters a cryptic word and the tale just ends up there. Maugham gives a message early in the game – you can’t expect perfect answers in the world of spies.
- The Hairless Mexican – A professional assassin who has an off day. But by the time we learn the final twist we have endured dozen of pages detailing his persona and past stories. Ashenden is very patient and expecting something to be delivered at the end of it. He is to be disappointed yet again on that count.
- Giulia Lazzari – Inspired by Mata Hari, it is the familiar tale of a talented dancer who lures men and manage to eke out a sordid living. In particular she has a passionate lover who is desperately chased by the Allied forces. Pressure is put on Giulia to persuade and betray her lover. She manages it and the result is a desperate tragedy since the lover commits suicide. Giulia manages to survive for another day and another battle.
- The Traitor – Is the best story in the lot – the moral greys are out there for all to see. So you are spy, possibly you can be a double agent and possibly after that you can cross over to the other side. Cross, double cross, triple cross – the mind-boggling possibilities in the world of spying and espionage. But Maugham pulls off a winner in this one – it has been picturized and dramatized on multiple occasions. And our sympathies are, shocking as it were, with the Traitor.
- His Excellency – Quite out-of-place in a series that deals with spying. It can be regarded to be a miniature version of Maugham’s perennial classic on unrequited love, ‘Of Human Bondage’. But it underlines Maugham’s popular message – one regrets the choices that we didn’t make more than even the ones that we did & that went wrong.
- Mr. Harrington’s Washing – Bathos at its best. Maugham does excellent characterization and regales us with a potential for a great climax. The dramatic turn of events is tapered off with quite a whimper.
So Ashenden is the precursor for times to come. It led to a revolution and gave us realistic spy tales from the likes of Graham Greene and John Le Carre in particular. And anyone who read / saw of James Bond simply knew that this was pure fantasy in comparison to real world of spying and espionage.