W. Somerset Maugham

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W. Somerset Maugham Mystery & Detective Fiction Analysis

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Ashenden: Or, The British Agent (1928) consists of sixteen stories and sketches bound by the central character, an authorial persona. Ashenden’s experiences are based on W. Somerset Maugham’s work with MI6 during 1915-1917, though Maugham carefully notes that the accounts are fictional. The name Ashenden, like many in Maugham’s work, is common in Kent and was the surname of a schoolmate of the author at King’s School in Canterbury. Maugham continued to use the name after the spy series, most notably in Cakes and Ale: Or, The Skeleton in the Cupboard (1930), where the authorial persona is given the first name Willie, as Maugham was called by his friends. Ted Morgan reports that sometimes Maugham introduced himself as Willie Ashenden, and there can be little doubt that the author of the stories is closely identified with his hero.

Maugham is noted for introducing the life of the workaday spy or intelligence officer, a hero who is neither heroic nor idealistic. When Ashenden is recruited by R., a British colonel who becomes his chief, the latter narrates a story of a recent event that might be useful in fiction. An agent meets an attractive woman, forms a liaison with her, and together they go to a hotel room. During the evening she manages to drug him, and when he awakens she and his secret papers are missing. This premise, R. says, should make a good story. Ashenden’s response gives the writer’s perspective: “We’ve been putting that incident on the stage for sixty years, we’ve written it in a thousand novels. Do you mean to say that life has only just caught up with us?” In reality, an agent’s work proves far less dramatic. In his preface to a later edition (1941), Maugham points out that intelligence work is often monotonous and uncommonly useless to a writer. To form coherent plots, an author must impose organization and provide logical connections.

Ashenden is more an intermediary than an actor in events; he receives his orders from R. and transmits information to other agents. Sometimes he serves as a supervisor, sometimes as paymaster; at other times his mission is not entirely clear even to himself. He gives the impression that he grasps a small part of a large puzzle while operating in an atmosphere rife with intrigue. When Ashenden is in Switzerland, he serves without pay; he has been told that his success will not be rewarded; thus, his failure will be his own responsibility. Skeptical, detached, analytic, and even cynical at times, he never questions his own loyalty. He would no more think of betraying his nation or its interests than of appearing to be lower class. When he finds out that R. has been receiving reports on his activities, including social ones, he reacts with wry amusement. Among the other characters in the series, only R. recurs with any regularity. Ashenden’s chief is humorless and somewhat self-conscious about his lack of culture, but he is cunning, masterful, single-minded, and completely devoted to his profession.

Ashenden is first sent to Geneva with access to codes and a diplomatic passport under the name Somerville. He assures the skeptical Swiss authorities that he has come there only to write a play, since wartime England is in too much turmoil for artistic creation. The Swiss know that their country is filled with spies for both sides and accept the situation, though they are always on the lookout for flagrant and open violations of their neutrality.

“The Flip of a Coin”

The conflicts faced by Ashenden in his role as an agent are revealed in the brief story “The Flip of a Coin,” which Maugham omitted when he prepared the Ashenden material for his volumes of collected short stories. An assassin has approached Ashenden with the idea of killing the King of B., a monarchy allied with Germany, and for the deed he wants five thousand pounds. Ashenden takes the matter to R., who reponds, “It’s not the kind of thing we can have anything to do with. We don’t wage war by those methods. We leave them to the Germans. Damn it all, we are gentlemen. . . .” Shortly afterward he suggests that having the king out of the way would be quite a good thing, and that if from a sense of patriotism anyone chose to arrange it, he could not object. Ashenden snaps back that he would not pay for a mission of that kind out of his own pocket. He then has to resolve the main conflict, deciding whether a saboteur should be sent to blow up German factories. The problem is that many innocent foreign workers would die, a point that Ashenden belabors to the eager saboteur Herbartus. Unable to decide the matter, Ashenden decides to flip a coin, and the story ends without providing the answer. Ashenden’s reflections on war, intrigue, and folly, however, bring him to a pessimistic conclusion: “Man, with so short a time between the cradle and the grave, spent his life in foolishness. A trivial creature!”

“The Hairless Mexican”

In the main, the Ashenden stories narrate the agent’s reactions to people he meets—largely Americans, Russians, or unusual Englishmen—or they deal with his efforts to thwart the German intelligence officers, as in “The Hairless Mexican.” R. Sends Ashenden to accompany an assassin, an exiled Mexican revolutionary, whose mission is to murder a Greek businessman carrying documents of interest to the Germans. The Mexican meets the Greek as he disembarks at Brindisi, Italy, strikes up an acquaintance, and in short order kills the man. Afterward, Ashenden and he search the hotel room in vain for the papers. Ashenden then opens a telegram from R. saying that the targeted individual has not yet left Greece. He turns to the assassin with the scathing remark, “You bloody fool, you’ve killed the wrong man!”

“The Traitor”

Not all the missions are this disastrous. In “The Traitor,” Ashenden meets an Englishman with a German wife, a man discovered to be a traitor. R. simply tells Ashenden to make his acquaintance without any specific directions. By carefully piecing together facts and reaching a logical conclusion, Ashenden discovers that the German officer in charge of his English compatriot has demanded more information of him. The Englishman, Grantley Caypor, asks Ashenden to use his influence to secure for him a place in the Censorship Department in London, since he can no longer bear to shirk the war effort. To avoid anti-German sentiments in England, his wife will remain in Switzerland, though in reality she is there to relay to German agents any information he obtains in England. Ashenden gladly complies with the request, even arranging a visa, knowing that once Caypor has crossed the French border he will be arrested and shot.

“Giulia Lazzari”

In “Giulia Lazzari,” Ashenden uses his talent as a writer to secure the arrest of an Indian agitator, Chandra Lal, who stirs resentment among colonial troops from his office in Berlin. Lal has fallen in love with Giulia Lazzari, a Spanish dancer of Italian descent, who tours various European countries. On one tour, R. has her arrested on espionage charges, claiming to possess enough information to imprison her for ten years. Ashenden’s job is to persuade her to lure Lal across the French border in return for her own freedom. Ashenden accompanies her from Paris to Thonon, a town near the Swiss border, and overcomes her opposition to the idea, often dictating letters to the reluctant target. Chandra Lal is persuaded to visit her, crosses the border, is detained, and knowing that he is caught, manages to commit suicide.

“Miss King”

In several stories, however, Maugham seems more interested in portraying a character or re-creating a setting than in narrating incidents of counterintelligence. In “Miss King,” an elderly English governess who lives in Ashenden’s hotel suffers a stroke and asks that he come to her in the middle of the night. Ashenden hardly knows her and cannot imagine what she has to tell him. On his arrival, he finds her unable to speak. Left alone with her by the attending physician, he sits patiently beside her bed, awaiting her recovery. Before morning, she rouses herself with great effort, exclaims “England!” and dies. The story suggests that she only wanted the company of a fellow countryman at the time of her death.

“His Excellency”

In “His Excellency,” Ashenden dines with an English ambassador who narrates a lengthy story of lost opportunity in love and a successful career at the expense of an embittered life. Although the ambassador uses pseudonyms, Ashenden recognizes that the story is about the narrator. Among other memorable characters is the American John Quincy Harrington, whom Ashenden meets in Russia. Brimming with confidence, expansive and optimistic, Harrington implicitly believes that his American citizenship is adequate protection anywhere, even amid the chaos of revolutionary Russia, and he ignores the well-intended warnings of Ashenden and his Russian friends. He is killed by a reckless band of soldiers while trying to recover his laundry before leaving Russia. This account ends shortly after the fall of the Kerensky government and the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks, events that mark the failure of Ashenden’s (and Maugham’s) mission to Russia.

Other Works

Apart from the Ashenden stories, Maugham’s interest in mystery and detective fiction was fitful and scattered. In A Writer’s Notebook (1949), Maugham recorded many of his notes and sketches from Russia during 1917, and a posthumous publication, A Traveller in Romance (1984), includes a character sketch of the Russian terrorist Boris Savinkov. Among his short stories, several deal with murder but usually do not emphasize mystery and crime solving. In “Footprints in the Jungle,” a murder results from a love triangle. The killer, though known to everyone, marries his victim’s widow, and the two lead normal lives, as there is no adequate proof that he is the murderer. In “The Letter,” a woman pleads self-defense to the murder of her secret lover and is acquitted. The story became accessible to a wide audience when a stage adaptation and a film version were made.

With his interest in plot and narration, Maugham found the detective story enjoyable and highly readable. In his essay “The Decline and Fall of the Detective Story” (in The Vagrant Mood, 1952), he explores the genre and praises the hard-boiled detective fiction of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. When he was called on to edit anthologies, Maugham often included detective fiction among the selections. In The Traveller’s Library (1933) he included Trent’s Last Case (1953) by E. C. Bentley, with a note on detective stories. In Great Modern Reading: W. Somerset Maugham’s Introduction to Modern English and American Literature (1943), he included stories by John Dickson Carr, Anthony Berkeley, and Dashiell Hammett. He found the genre more meritorious than his short story “The Creative Impulse” suggests; in that account, a female author who has been deserted by her husband turns to detective fiction to make money.

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