I first read these stories in the early 1960s and was impressed even then. As far as spy fiction goes, they are dated, and Maugham offends those editors and writers who decry long paragraphs and author intrusion; they are of their time, and none the worse for that. Maugham had the knack to write so that it seemed to the reader to be effortless; he mastered narrative flow. The late Martin Seymour-Smith observes that Maugham ‘was very prolific, and all his novels are readable and intelligent…’ while ‘his short stories are economical and superbly capture the sense of place, and always seem credible.’
Ashenden was an author recruited by a Colonel in the Intelligence Department known by the letter ‘R’. The mysterious ‘R’ is described as a man of ‘somewhat above the middle height, lean, with a yellow deeply-lined face, thin grey hair, and a toothbrush moustache. The thing immediately noticeable about him was the closeness with which his blue eyes were set. He only just escaped a squint. They were hard and cruel eyes, and very wary; and they gave him a cunning, shifty look. He was a man that you could neither like nor trust at first sight. His manner was pleasant and cordial.’
In the much published short story ‘The Hairless Mexican’ Ashenden accompanies the titular character under the cover name of Mr Somerville – which in fact is an alias Maugham used when secretly dealing with the Russian PM Alexander Kerensky in 1917, in the hope of keeping Russia in the war.
This collection consists of seven stories; there were thirty altogether; though fourteen were burned by Maugham as they infringed the Official Secrets Act: published under the title Ashenden, 1928. The stories in this collection are:
The Hairless Mexican;
Mr Harrington’s washing;
The Times Literary Supplement said in its review of the Ashenden stories: ‘counter-intelligence work consists often of morally indefensible jobs not to be undertaken by the squeamish or the conscience-stricken.’ Yes, that about sums up a secret agent.
Le Carré called Maugham ‘the first person to write about espionage in a mood of disenchantment and almost prosaic reality.’