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How this idea for a piece of fiction:
There was a merchant in Bagdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, ‘Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture. Now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and their Death will not find me.’ The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant went down to the marketplace and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, ‘Why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning?’ ‘That was not a threatening gesture,’ I said, ‘it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Bagdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.’
That’s Somerset Maugham, my favorite novelist. I’ve beat the drum here for Of Human Bondage and Cakes and Ale. But Maugham was also the master of the short story. I’m especially fond of “Ashenden,” Maugham’s 1928 collection of spy stories — the first stories about spies that were written by a former spy.
Here’s how it begins:
It was not till the beginning of September that Ashenden, a writer by profession, who had been abroad at the outbreak of the war, managed to get back to England. He chanced soon after his arrival to go to a party and was there introduced to a middle-aged Colonel whose name he did not catch. He had some talk with him. As he was about to leave this officer came up to him and asked:
“I say, I wonder if you’d mind coming to see me. I’d rather like to have a chat with you.”
“Certainly,” said Ashenden. “Whenever you like.”
“What about to-morrow at eleven?”
“I’ll just write down my address. Have you a card on you?”
Ashenden gave him one and on this, the Colonel scribbled in pencil the name of a street and the number of a house. When Ashenden walked along next morning to keep his appointment he found himself in a street of rather vulgar red-brick houses in a part of London that had once been fashionable, but was now fallen in the esteem of the house-hunter who wanted a good address. On the house at which Ashenden had been asked to call there was a board up to announce that it was for sale, the shutters were closed and there was no sign that anyone lived in it. He rang the bell and the door was opened by a non-commissioned officer so promptly that he was startled. He was not asked his business, but led immediately into a long room at the back, once evidently a dining-room, the florid decoration of which looked oddly out of keeping with the office furniture, shabby and sparse, that was in it. It gave Ashenden the impression of a room in which the brokers had taken possession. The Colonel, who was known in the Intelligence Department, as Ashenden later discovered, by the letter R., rose when he came in and shook hands with him. He was a man 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. Here was a man that you could neither like nor trust at first sight. His manner was pleasant and cordial.
He asked Ashenden a good many questions and then, without further to-do, suggested that he had particular qualifications for the secret service. Ashenden was acquainted with several European languages and his profession was excellent cover; on the pretext that he was writing a book he could without attracting attention visit any neutral country. It was while they were discussing this point that R. said:
“You know you ought to get material that would be very useful to you in your work.”
“I shouldn’t mind that,” said Ashenden.
“I’ll tell you an incident that occurred only the other day and I can vouch for its truth. I thought at the time it would make a damned good story. One of the French ministers went down to Nice to recover from a cold and he had some very important documents with him that he kept in a dispatch-case. They were very important indeed. Well, a day or two after he arrived he picked up a yellow-haired lady at some restaurant or other where there was dancing, and he got very friendly with her. To cut a long story short, he took her back to his hotel—of course it was a very imprudent thing to do—and when he came to himself in the morning the lady and the dispatch-case had disappeared. They had one or two drinks up in his room and his theory is that when his back was turned the woman slipped a drug into his glass.”
R. finished and looked at Ashenden with a gleam in his close-set eyes.
“Dramatic, isn’t it?” he asked.
“Do you mean to say that happened the other day?”
“The week before last.”
“Impossible,” cried Ashenden. “Why, 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?”
R. was a trifle disconcerted.
“Well, if necessary, I could give you names and dates, and believe me, the Allies have been put to no end of trouble by the loss of the documents that the dispatch-case contained.”
“Well, sir, if you can’t do better than that in the secret service,” sighed Ashenden, “I’m afraid that as a source of inspiration to the writer of fiction it’s a washout. We really can’t write that story much longer.”
It did not take them long to settle things and when Ashenden rose to go he had already made careful note of his instructions. He was to start for Geneva next day. The last words that R. said to him, with a casualness that made them impressive, were:
“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?”
“Then I’ll wish you good afternoon.”
These stories are not quite fiction. By 1914, Maugham had 10 plays produced and 10 novels published; he was rich and famous, and “Of Human Bondage” was about to make him richer and more famous. But in 1915 the 41-year-old writer signed up for the Red Cross as an interpreter and medical assistant in France. He was soon recruited to join Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service. His writing would be his cover — he’d be a French writer. That wasn’t a difficult role; he was born in Paris and lived there until he was 10, speaking mostly French. Off Maugham went to Switzerland, where he served as an intermediary between other agents in the field and the SIS in Britain, and sent the occasional coded message.
Maugham volunteered as a patriotic duty — he received no salary. He did get quite an education. “The work of an agent in the Intelligence Department is on the whole extremely monotonous,” he wrote. “A lot of it is uncommonly useless. The material it offers for stories is scrappy and pointless; the author has himself to make it coherent, dramatic and probable.” Perhaps, but he had to burn almost half the stories because they revealed too much about British Intelligence. And they were sufficiently realistic that Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda, cited them an example of British cynicism and brutality.
Ashenden carries no gun. He doesn’t need one. His idea of action is counter-intelligence. His tools are persuasion, bribery, blackmail, and luck. If there’s a murder or betrayal, he’s far from the event. Not dramatic enough for you? Eric Ambler, Graham Greene, Len Deighton and John le Carré all took their cues from “Ashenden.
For years, I couldn’t find these stories. Then I stumbled onto delightful news — they are in print. They are Volume 3 of Maugham’s short stories. [To buy “Ashenden” — that is, “Maugham’s Collected Stories, Volume 3” — click here.]
Fun fact: Maugham gives Ashenden no first name. Dedicated fans will recall that a character named “William Ashenden” is the narrator of “Cakes and Ale,” “The Moon and Sixpence” and “The Razor’s Edge.”
Graeme Shimmin has thoughtfully summarized the plots of several of these stories, taking care not to ruin your reading pleasure with spoilers.
When Ashenden arrives in Geneva the British governess of an Egyptian prince refuses his friendship. When she has a near-fatal stroke she summons him, intent on a deathbed confession… But, due to her stroke, she is unable to convey whatever information she has to Ashenden and dies before morning.
‘Gustav’ is one of Britain’s most prolific agents, and one of the highest paid, but the Secret Service has started to suspect his reports of inaccuracy. Ashenden investigates and discovers that Gustav has not been to Germany since the war started and has made up all his reports…
‘R’ reassigns Ashenden to Russia, where he meets the British ambassador. The ambassador tells Ashenden how, when he was a young man, he fell in love with a woman unsuitable to his class and career… And how he left his true love, married a more appropriate woman, and has regretted it all his life.
Years later, Maugham wrote, “It is not for any topical interest they may have and not because they have been used as a sort of textbook that I now offer to the public a new edition of these stories. They purpose only to offer entertainment, which I still think, impenitently, is the main object of a work of fiction.”
Clearly, these stories not only “offer” entertainment, they provide it.
Alfred Hitchcock combined two of these stories his 1936 film, “The Secret Agent.” It is far from his best.
This article originally appeared on The Head Butler.
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