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Ashenden: The British Agent Paperback – Large Print, July 31, 2010

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Editorial Reviews


"The most persuasive espionage fiction" New York Times "The first spy story written by someone who had been there and done that. A humane and compassionate antidote to two-fisted, square-jawed heroes battling dastardly foreigners. The head of British Intelligence is known only as "R", anticipating James Bond's "M" by a quarter of a century" The Times "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" Daily Telegraph "A collection of stories so accurate that Churchill ordered the destruction of 14 of them, while Russian intelligence immediately set up a special unit to read British spy novels for clues" New Statesman --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

From the Inside Flap

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.

From the Trade Paperback edition. --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 312 pages
  • Publisher: Transaction Large Print; Lrg edition (July 31, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1412811724
  • ISBN-13: 978-1412811729
  • Product Dimensions: 7 x 0.6 x 10 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (34 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,055,104 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

26 of 26 people found the following review helpful By DAVID BRYSON VINE VOICE on July 27, 2003
Format: Hardcover
Ashenden was particularly admired by Raymond Chandler, and that is what first interested me in it. It is the story, based on Maugham's own experience, of a British spy in the first world war. The 'story' is more a series of separate episodes, and I can easily imagine why it appealed to Chandler -- as well as the laconic detachment of the writing, there is almost a feel of Hammett here and there, notably the episode of the Hairless Mexican. Much of the action centres round Geneva, a city I personally like, and there is a peculiar fascination in the voyage of the lake-steamer going in and out of the war-zone as it alternates between Switzerland and France. This kind of spy did not have much in common with the heroes of Len Deighton or John Le Carre -- the job reminds me more of how J K Galbraith described the life of an ambassador, ninety percent boredom and ten percent panic, like being an airline pilot. It has its grim side too as you would expect. One of the most memorable pieces is the story of the traitor Grantley Caypor. Some years ago Ashenden was serialised on the BBC, with Caypor superbly played by Alan Bennett. What that production did not even try to reproduce was what happened at the moment of Caypor's execution, unforgettable in Maugham's cold prose.
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28 of 29 people found the following review helpful By A. Ross HALL OF FAMETOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on June 13, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Worth a read for historical reasons as it is one of (if not the) first modern spy novels. That said, it is very far away from the intricately woven page-turners featuring brainy CIA types bedding winsome females that we tend to think of as being sp novels today. Maugham served in the British intelligence corps in WWI and drew heavily upon his own experiences in writing this book, indeed the epynonymous hero is a well-known writer by profession. Each chapter is almost its own vignette, illustrating some experience or aspect of the intelligent agent's life. The theme is that the agent's life is marked by dullness and inability to know the "big picture." Ashenden is based in Switzerland and undertakes his assignments (none of which involve gunplay or physical prowess) dutifully, yet the reader feels, with a certain ambivalence. There is one especially haunting scene where, for once, Ashenden witnesses firsthand, the repercussions of his actions.
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16 of 16 people found the following review helpful By Ted Smith on February 5, 2005
Format: Hardcover
"Ashenden" by Somerset Maugham is one of the grandfathers of the spy fiction genre. In reality, it's not really a novel, but eight short stories featuring Ashenden, a novelist-secret agent during WWI. Each story is unique, some focusing on the violence and duplicity of the secret world (e.g., "The Hairless Mexican," "Guilia Lazzari," and "The Traitor"). Others are less about espionage than quiet character studies (for example, the final story, "The Sanatorium," has nothing whatever to do with spying, but is set in a tuberculosis sanatorium and--though a it's a bit sentimental--is a brilliant character study of the patients and, in particular, of those who find love in the midst of adversity). I found it deeply touching.

I must admit this the first I've read of Maugham and was impressed with his ability in a single paragraph to get to the very essence of a character (perhaps the best example being his vivid characterization of the funny, but tragic Mr. Harrington in "Mr. Harrington's Washing"). Each of Maugham's characters are distinct and finely drawn.

Maugham at one time analyzed himself as in the first rank of the second rate writers. He may not be Dostoevsky or Cervantes, but he was a fine writer who deserves to be read-I think it's more accurate to say he's in the second row of the first rate writers.

I only found out about "Ashenden" from one of the terrific essays of Michael Dirda (the reviewer for the Washington Post) in which he constantly brings to light lost classics.

"Ashenden" is readable, convincing, and (despite its WWI setting) relevant to the events of today. The secret and desperate world of war and espionage will be with us forever it seems; Maugham's themes are timeless and his writing is a model of clarity.

This is a lost classic that should be read.
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24 of 26 people found the following review helpful By Jim Campbell on April 19, 1999
Format: Hardcover
Considered by many afficionados of the Spy Novel genre` as the first of it's kind. Written in 1928, the book is a series of stories loosly connected to reveal the sometimes tedious, sometimes adventureous events in the work of a spy in MI5 during the latter stages of World War I. Maugham is given credit by Graham Greene and Eric Ambler as being their inspiration and Ian Flemming borrowed much from the book, including M who was "R" in Maugham's book. Maugham was given the impossible task to squelch the Bolshivic revolution with 56,000 pounds given to him by the government of Lloyd George and he fictionalizes this in the story "Mr. Harrington's Washington." The story "The Hairless Mexican" inspired Hitchcock to write and direct the movie "The Secret Agent" with John Guilgud and Peter Lorrie. This book to my thinking is one of the hidden classics in literature, written by a writer highly underrated because of his popularity and some of his later works that he did purely for money. A must for lovers of the Edwardian period and those who ever wondered where the Burbury Trench Coat came from.
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