I was just taking a copy of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold off the shelf in Blackwell’s the other day – determined to read all of John le Carré’s Smiley books in sequence – when I had a better idea.
Why not go right to the roots of the genre, and read W. Somerset Maugham’s Ashenden stories? I’d often heard that this was where realistic spy fiction started, and here was the place to find out. So I went upstairs to where they keep the pre-1960 fiction, and found when I was after: the Vintage paperback of Maugham’s 1928 story collection, Ashenden.
Maugham was employed by the British secret service in Switzerland and elsewhere during the First World War, so he knew what he was writing about. The stories have, in an intriguing and gently realistic period setting, all the things we’ve grown used to from le Carré’s novels: double agents, betrayals, mistakes, blackmail, cold-blooded murder (sometimes of what turns out to have been the wrong person), and a spymaster known only by an initial: Ashenden takes his orders from a military intelligence officer known as ‘R’.
Not all the stories are full of suspense. Some are gently humorous; some leave lots of loose ends, or twist off into directions completely unforeseen, which all fits perfectly with the quietly insane world of espionage, where nobody is what they seem and nobody is quite sure where things are going or whether actions are wise or foolish.
The final story in the book contains a wonderfully convincing account of Russia in October and November 1917 at the time of the Bolshevik Revolution: no heroics, no grand scene-painting, just food shortages, confusion, soldiers shooting at random on the streets, and Ashenden accepting that whatever he was supposed to be doing in Moscow is now totally irrelevant and the best he can hope for is a coded message telling him to return home before the borders are closed.
It struck me that there might be a good book to be written about that time in Russia when Arthur Ransome, Hugh Walpole, John Reed and (if the story is from experience, as it appears) Maugham himself were all in Russia, working for Press and/or Intelligence and helplessly caught up in revolutionary chaos. Maybe someone out there would like to write it?
And while we’re digressing, as I read Ashenden I couldn’t help finding something about the style and approach a little familar. I realised that I was being reminded of Borges’s story ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’. I wouldn’t mind betting that Borges had read Maugham’s stories and was using them as a model – though of course his tale is far more fantastic.
Anyway, if you like spy fiction and want a good, intelligent but undemanding, fascinating and well-written period-piece, I can’t recommend anything better than Ashenden. I’m delighted to make his acquaintance.