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First UK edition (Heinemann)

Ashenden: Or the British Agent is a 1927 collection of loosely linked stories by W. Somerset Maugham. It is partly based on the author's experience as a member of British Intelligence in Europe during the First World War.


Plot summaryEdit

During WWI, a writer named Ashenden, introduced only by his last name, is enlisted as an agent through threats and promises by "R.", a Colonel with British Intelligence. He is sent to Switzerland where he becomes involved in a number of counter-intelligence operations; these he accomplishes by means of persuasion, bribery, blackmail, or coincidence. He does not use a weapon.

In one, he accompanies a man called the Hairless Mexican to Italy, where they are to intercept important papers carried by an arriving Greek agent of the Germans. The Hairless Mexican meets the only Greek on the incoming ship, and during a search of the Greek's hotel room, the Hairless Mexican and Ashenden do not find any papers. As they prepare to leave the country, Ashenden decodes a cable which tells him that the intended Greek had never boarded the ship; spots of dried blood on the Hairless Mexican's sleeve mean that he had killed the wrong man.

In another, Ashenden must induce an Italian dancer to betray her lover, an anti-British Indian and a German agent, by convincing him to cross the border from neutral Switzerland to see her in allied France, where the Allies can arrest him. The ironic denouement is that after the man is captured by the British, he commits suicide before he can be arrested, tried, and executed. When she finds out of his death, the dancer goes to Ashenden and asks to get back the valuable watch she had given to the man whom she has just betrayed.

After a number of similar operations, Ashenden is sent to Imperial Russia during the 1917 revolution, as an "agent of influence", to do what he can to keep Russia in the war against Germany. He spends eleven days on the train from Vladivostok to Petrograd sharing a cabin with Harrington, an American business man who is a constant conversationalist. A few days after they arrive, the revolution breaks out in earnest. As they try to evacuate, the business man insists on getting back his laundry that had been sent out. During his return with the laundry, Harrington is killed in a street riot.


  1. R.
  2. A Domiciliary Visit
  3. Miss King
  4. The Hairless Mexican
  5. The Dark Woman
  6. The Greek
  7. A Trip to Paris
  8. Giulia Lazzari
  9. Gustav
  10. The Traitor
  11. Behind the Scenes
  12. His Excellency
  13. The Flip of a Coin
  14. A Chance Acquaintance
  15. Love and Russian Literature
  16. Mr. Harrington's Washing

The chapters are collected in later collections under different titles, as below. It is unknown whether they were rewritten slightly from original publication.

  • "A Domiciliary Visit" & "Miss King" as Miss King
  • "The Hairless Mexican", "The Dark Woman", "The Greek" as The Hairless Mexican
  • "A Trip to Paris, "Giulia Lazzari" as Giulia Lazzari
  • "Gustav", "The Traitor" as The Traitor
  • "Behind the Scenes", "His Excellency", as His Excellency
  • "A Chance Acquaintance", "Love and Russian Literature", "Mr. Harrington's Washing" as Mr. Harrington's Washing


The incidents described in the stories are modelled on Maugham's experiences as a secret agent, and "the central character, Ashenden, is very much an autobiographical character."[1] He is supposed to have modelled Chandra Lal after Virendranath Chattopadhyaya, an Indian Nationalist in Germany during the war.[2] Maugham, who was in the British Secret Service in Europe during the war, based a number of his stories on his own experiences. Among other enterprises, Britain's European intelligence network attempted to eliminate a number of Indian nationalists in Europe, notably members of the Berlin Committee. Donald Gullick, a British agent, was dispatched to assassinate Chattopadhaya while the latter was on his way to Geneva to meet another Indian nationalist, Mahendra Pratap and forward the Kaiser's invitation to Berlin. The short story of Giulia Lazzari is a blend of Gullick's attempts to assassinate Chattopadhyaya and Mata Hari's story. Winston Churchill reportedly advised Maugham to burn 14 other stories.[3][4][page needed]

Film and TV adaptationsEdit

The 1936 Alfred Hitchcock-directed film Secret Agent is a loose adaptation of "The Traitor" and "The Hairless Mexican", with John Gielgud as Ashenden (whose "real" name is Edgar Brodie), and Peter Lorre as The General. In the 1950 anthology film Trio, Ashenden was played by Roland Culver in the third story called Sanatorium.

On 7 August 1959 BBC Television broadcast a live version of "The Traitor." Written by Troy Kennedy Martin and directed by Gerard Glaister, it starred Stephen Murray as Ashenden, Donald Pleasence as Grantley Caypor, and Mai Zetterling as Frau Caypor. No copy is known to exist.

A number of the stories formed the basis of the 1991 four-part BBC1 series Ashenden, directed by Christopher Morahan, with Alex Jennings in the title role, Joss Ackland as Cumming and Ian Bannen as 'R'. Guest actors included Harriet Walter as Giulia Lazzari in the first episode, Alan Bennett as Grantly Caypor in the second, René Auberjonois as John Quincy Harrington in the third, with Elizabeth McGovern as Aileen Sommerville and Alfred Molina as Carmona, the titular character, in the final story. A framing device at the start of each episode shows progressively more of an aged Ashenden living in France in the mid-1960s, reacting adversely to a piece of music on the radio. The final episode – which gives the context to this reaction – closes with a return to this "future" setting.

Other appearancesEdit

A character named "William Ashenden" is the narrator of Maugham's novels Cakes and Ale, The Moon and Sixpence and The Razor's Edge.[5] Ashenden is also the name of a character who appears in several of Maugham's short stories.

The character appears briefly in the book The Bloody Red Baron by Kim Newman.


  1. ^ Robert Calder, W. Somerset Maugham and the Quest for Freedom, 1972, p. 201
  2. ^ Balachandran, V. (28 August 2011). "True fiction: The best spies are really quite boring". Sunday Guardian. Retrieved 23 August 2013.
  3. ^ Popplewell 1995, p. 234
  4. ^ Barooah 2004
  5. ^ Kathleen Kuiper, Cakes and Ale (novel by Maugham)., 2011. Accessed 23 November 2013.


External linksEdit