Ellery Queen included this book in an updated version of the “Reader’s List of Detective Story Cornerstones,” a much-cited roster of genre-defining works originally compiled by Howard Haycraft and first published in 1941. Yet the seven loosely joined tales that Maugham crafted about Ashenden, a writer recruited into undercover service during the First World War, are not detective stories by any stretch of the critical imagination. Nor, in conventional terms, are they spy stories. Far from propping up the edifice of either tradition, they tend—slyly but unmistakably—to weaken the foundation of any approach to fiction that relies on a vision of individual heroism. Neither a sleuth who exposes criminals nor a spy who saves his country from its foes, Ashenden serves almost passively in his title role: He is a mere “agent” of the British state, a tool deployed to maintain the grinding, impersonal machinery of war. Although it’s possible to trace a line from Ashenden to the scarred anti-heroes of (for example) John le Carré, Maugham’s stories about this Englishman abroad have a closer kinship with his other writings about British people in distant climes than they do with the broad heritage of espionage fiction. Like those other writings, the Ashenden tales fall within a quasi-genre that one might label “imperial realism.” Taking place at various far-flung compass points, stories in this mode offer acute glimpses of the British Empire and its flawed subjects during the period after the empire’s famously never-setting sun had reached its apogee. Maugham’s characters, including Ashenden, never question the legitimacy of British power, but everything that they do and say calls into question its core myths.
Ashenden, a man of letters who retains the orientation of an observer even after history has turned him into a man of action, comes cast from the mold of autobiography. Maugham served as a secret agent during the Great War himself, using as a cover his identity as a successful playwright. He operated both in Switzerland, where small-scale intrigue seethed quietly under an umbrella of official neutrality, and in Russia, where the storm of revolution washed over all parties who lay in its path. So, too, does Ashenden operate in those two locales. In either setting and on either scale, the war could inflect the course of personal destiny, and such inflection points are the chief object of interest for Maugham. Each Ashenden tale is a slice of life as it’s lived on the edge—the edge of death, the edge of insight. The literary values on display throughout this volume are those of the classic short story: not ideas, but people; not events, but moments; not resolution, but epiphany; not passion, but irony.
In the early stories, Maugham deals directly with the stuff of war and espionage, placing special emphasis on the brutal workings of real-world spycraft—the cynical manipulation of weak people, the routine subordination of individual desires to reasons of state, the crass lying, the fatal mistakes. In “The Hairless Mexican,” Ashenden acts as the handler of an assassin whose outlandish self-importance doesn’t hide the fact that he’s quite bad at his job. In “Giulia Lazzari,” a love affair between a vagabond music-hall dancer and an Indian nationalist becomes a lever that Ashenden uses to eliminate one of Britain’s wartime enemies. But as one story follows another, the war retreats further and further from view. “Mr Harrington’s Washing,” set during the 1917 revolution in Russia (where Ashenden has come to help bolster the Kerensky government), finds its true point of focus not in crises of state, but in the improbable bond that emerges between a narrow-minded American businessman and a fiery Russian woman. The man’s refusal to flee the Bolsheviks without his laundry in hand strikes a resounding chord in the woman’s romantic soul, and Maugham’s rendering of their encounter reads today like a prescient Cold War parable:
Anastasia Alexandrovna stared at the floor for a moment; then with a little smile looked up. It seemed to Ashenden that there was something in her that responded to Mr Harrington’s futile obstinacy. In her Russian way she understood that Mr Harrington could not leave Petrograd without his washing. His insistence had given it the value of a symbol.
The collection ends with a tale that makes no reference of the war at all. Simply titled “Sanitarium,” it takes place at a retreat for tubercular patients in the Scottish highlands. How exactly Ashenden landed there goes unexplained, but a spell of TB puts him in an ideal spot from which to observe how diverse people respond to the presence of death—a presence that they feel in their very lungs. (Maugham, as it happens, had suffered from tuberculosis.) In parts, the story reflects the common postwar belief that European civilization itself was sick. If Maugham doesn’t mention the four years of pointless carnage that were the most visible symptom of cultural disease, the reason is that he plainly doesn’t have to. (The landmark novel Magic Mountain, by Thomas Mann, wields the same metaphor to explore a very similar theme.) Despite evoking that sentiment, though, Maugham issues an implicit call to seize the day, however short or nasty it might be. Life has much to recommend it, he suggests, even though death surrounds it on all sides.
[ADDENDUM: Maugham’s attitude toward death and its quandaries clearly differed from the prevailing attitude in the detective stories of his day. The puzzle mysteries that were highly popular during the 1920s treat death as a clean, soluble problem—and thereby keep it at an antiseptic remove from readers. Maugham, who attended medical school before he settled on a writing career, adopts a more clinical view of the matter in his own work. Yet he admired “the immense and varied achievements of the detective writers,” as he wrote in an essay (“The Decline and Fall of the Detective Story”) published many years after Ashenden. To future critics, he speculated, those achievements might prove more compelling than “the compositions of ‘serious’ novelists.” One thing is certain: Detective stories, if they do nothing else, allow us to “spy on” the culture that produces them.]