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17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars ATMOSPHERIC
Ashenden was particularly admired by Raymond Chandler, and that is what first interested me in it. It is the story, based on Maugham's own experience, of a British spy in the first world war. The 'story' is more a series of separate episodes, and I can easily imagine why it appealed to Chandler -- as well as the laconic detachment of the writing, there is almost a feel of...
Published on 2 Jan 2003 by DAVID BRYSON

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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Great book, bad e-book
Ashenden is a minor masterpiece, and I recommend it unreservedly. But I was very disappointed with Vintage's e-edition. It's absolutely riddled with mistakes, most of them, I suspect, arising from OCR scans which haven't been edited. I can put up with this sort of thing in free titles that have been converted by amateurs, but when you're paying a Random House imprint...
Published on 3 Jan 2012 by Mr. Rupert J. B. Smith


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17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars ATMOSPHERIC, 2 Jan 2003
By 
DAVID BRYSON (Glossop Derbyshire England) - See all my reviews
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Ashenden was particularly admired by Raymond Chandler, and that is what first interested me in it. It is the story, based on Maugham's own experience, of a British spy in the first world war. The 'story' is more a series of separate episodes, and I can easily imagine why it appealed to Chandler -- as well as the laconic detachment of the writing, there is almost a feel of Hammett here and there, notably the episode of the Hairless Mexican. Much of the action centres round Geneva, a city I personally like, and there is a peculiar fascination in the voyage of the lake-steamer going in and out of the war-zone as it alternates between Switzerland and France. This kind of spy did not have much in common with the heroes of Len Deighton or John Le Carre -- the job reminds me more of how J K Galbraith described the life of an ambassador, ninety percent boredom and ten percent panic, like being an airline pilot. It has its grim side too as you would expect. One of the most memorable pieces is the story of the traitor Grantley Caypor. Some years ago Ashenden was serialised on television, with Caypor superbly played by Alan Bennett. What that production did not even try to reproduce was what happened at the moment of Caypor's execution, unforgettable in Maugham's cold prose.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Great book, bad e-book, 3 Jan 2012
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This review is from: Ashenden (Vintage Classics) (Kindle Edition)
Ashenden is a minor masterpiece, and I recommend it unreservedly. But I was very disappointed with Vintage's e-edition. It's absolutely riddled with mistakes, most of them, I suspect, arising from OCR scans which haven't been edited. I can put up with this sort of thing in free titles that have been converted by amateurs, but when you're paying a Random House imprint several quid for a title, you have the right to expect high editorial standards. I'd definitely think twice before buying any other Vintage titles - which is a shame because their list is amazing, and the print editions are beautifully done.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Maugham at His Best, 9 Sep 2010
Maugham's meandering plot is punctuated by his unerring ability to draw penetrating portraits of fascinating characters; altogether ASHENDEN gives the strong impression of a real spy at work. Really worth the journey!
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A minor masterpiece, 19 Nov 2012
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I was very impressed by this book. The first book I have read by W. Somerset Maugham. Maugham's beautiful writing evokes the life of a spy and is based on his own spying experiences during World War 1. Through a series of interrelated short stories the reader gains an appreciation of Maugham's spying experiences. He is insightful about those he meets, their motivations, and the extent to which they might be friend or foe. In the course of these stories, Maugham's protagonist Ashenden (a self portrait) gets to travel throughout Europe and Asia on missions where he meets a diverse cast of characters. Although this world is the polar opposite of James Bond, the stakes are still high (imprisonment or death a real possibility), and on a couple of memorable occasions he witnesses first hand the outcome of his work. All the stories are good, and four of them really pack a punch (The Hairless Mexican, The Traitor, His Excellency, and Mr Harrington's Washing). The book ends on a dramatic and unexpected note. It's a minor masterpiece. I will be reading more W. Somerset Maugham very soon - and if the rest of his work is up to this standard then I'm in for a treat.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Ashenden, 11 Aug 2014
By 
S Riaz "S Riaz" (England) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Ashenden (Vintage Classics) (Kindle Edition)
This fascinating, and delightful, book is often regarded as the first spy story and a precursor to Smiley and James Bond. Based on W. Somerset Maugham’s real life experience working for the Secret Service in WWI, this is a collection of linked stories about his fictional alter ego Ashenden. Like Maugham, Ashenden is an author; approached by a middle-aged Colonel (later known as ‘R’) at a party in London, shortly after the outbreak of the first world war. He suggests that, as Ashenden speaks several European languages and his profession is a perfect cover, he joins the intelligence agency. Despite the comment that, “if you do well you’ll get no thanks and if you get into trouble you’ll get no help,” Ashenden seems happy enough to oblige.

What follows is an odd , often bizarre, series of events which mainly take place in hotels, restaurants and trains, far from the theatre of war. Espionage in WWI was often frowned upon as not being gentlemanly. While describing an agent, nicknamed ‘the Hairless Mexican,’ that Ashenden is asked to accompany to Italy, R remarks that, “he hasn’t had the advantages of a public school education.” Again, when Ashenden suggests that another agent has offered to carry out as assassination for money, R expostulates, “damn it all, we are gentlemen!”

However, despite the various restrictions and general distrust of spying, Ashenden has a calm head and is entrusted with some very important missions. We follow him through France, Switzerland, Italy and Russia, as he uncovers spy networks, accompanies agents to intercept certain documents, tries to trap Indian nationalists and is bored to death by an American businessman on the Trans-Siberian express. Maugham’s writing was never less than brilliant and this is no exception. To spend time in the company of his writing is always a delight and this is a wonderful, charming set of stories – told with typical British reserve – but perhaps even more moving because of the understatement. Although Ashenden does not venture into the field of battle, we (and his hero) are always aware of the soldiers in their trenches and the fact that the outcome of his various missions may result in a firing squad at dawn....
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4.0 out of 5 stars A cool, clipped narrator narrating tales of espionage, spliced with sudden, deadly bleakness., 24 Aug 2014
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W Somerset Maugham was one of the most commercially successful `popular literary authors' of the first half of the twentieth century. His tone combined a certain waspishness, and indeed emotional coldness (no doubt a result of an emotionally cold childhood) with sudden, unexpected displays of heart. There is a cool precision in his writing, an absence of fussiness, that tells a narrative cleanly and simply, and describes character incisively.

This particular book, `Ashenden' recounts the third person story of a writer, during the First World War, recruited by the Intelligence Department to go to neutral Switzerland, glean information, run Intelligence Operations, trap agents working for Germany, and later to travel to Russia on the eve of the Revolution, to prevent the Russian Revolution and to keep Russia engaged in the war on the Allied side. The book consists of short chapters in which our hero, urbane and observant, plays the espionage game with Bond like suavity (reputedly this book did exert some influence on Fleming) Though Ashenden himself is not the one who dispatches those agents who are spying for Prussia, he certainly lays the traps which will end in their executions by firing squad or dispatching by other means.

What is however the real hook for the modern reader is that Maugham himself was that writer, recruited by the Intelligence Agency, sent to neutral Switzerland and to Russia, with those goals, and the stories told here are factual, `from his case-book, as it were, though shaped and tidied, as Maugham explains in his foreword, for `the purposes of fiction' :

"Fact is a poor story - teller It starts a story at haphazard, generally long before the beginning, rambles on inconsequently and tails off, leaving loose ends hanging about, without a conclusion"

By all accounts, Winston Churchill asked Maugham to burn some of the stories which WERE to have appeared in this book, originally published in 1928, as they breached the Official Secrets Act.

These are beautifully constructed stories, though perhaps Maugham's/Ashenden's in the main rather chilly, mildly amused urbanity does tend to hold the reader also away from emotional engagement. Having said that, this is a device which then works brilliantly in the `wrap' of 2 or 3 of the stories where Ashenden's rather emotionally inhibited, intelligent, ironic, cultured persona temporarily reveals a sombre, bleak acknowledgement that playing the undoubted game of espionage can create collateral damage in the lives of innocents. The story called `The Hairless Mexican' would be an excellent fictional story, but the suspicion it may not be completely fiction delivers the killer punch to the reader.

Maugham's disciplined writing, refusing to emote, merely displaying an event dispassionately, without comment, letting the reader make the judgement, gives the kick to the solar plexus. I think it is the uneasy knowledge that these stories are not really quite fiction, which is responsible for that kick
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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Very droll, 9 Aug 2004
By A Customer
A very droll account of the life of Ashenden, a bridge- and bath-loving British spy in the First World War, full of sarcastic wit. The book opens oddly with an essay in which the author appears to be criticising slice-of-life novels which have no real coherent plot running through them, then goes on to write just such a book! The book is a series of rather disjointed episodes in Ashenden's career, some tragic and some very funny. It is imbued throughout with a very, very dark and sarcastic sense of humour which reminded me of Saki. Ashenden's superior, Colonel R., is particularly cynical. The highlight of the book for me was Ashenden's love affair with a Russian intellectual, which is hilarious. Worth a read in my opinion, but not for the squeamish or easily-offended, or those who don't understand British humour.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Not a typical spy novel, 1 Aug 2014
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Ashenden is a novel about the activities of a British spy (Ashenden) operating in several locations in Europe during World War I. However, it is not a typical spy novel in that it is essentially a collection of short stories (each a particular experience of Ashenden) so there is no build up of suspense or plot that ties together the entire book. The first part of the story, which covers Ashenden's experiences while based in Switzerland, is superb - very atmospheric and tense and with a varied range of interesting and credible characters. It also offers an illuminating insight into what life would have been like as a spy (as well as into society and culture generally) in Europe during the turbulent time of World War I. However, in my view the quality of the book deteriorates as it goes along, as the last few episodes are not realistic and a bit silly and lack the richness of the first episodes.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Sparse but evocative prose, 31 Dec 2012
By 
Graham R. Hill (Ilkley) - See all my reviews
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Whether describing the tradecraft of spying, the mad infatuation of a Victorian diplomat or the dread of a future filled with scrambled eggs for breakfast every day, Maugham's writing is a delight. It's not a narrative driven novel - and the introduction is well worth reading for an authorial discussion on that very subject - but each episode still contains sufficient to keep one reading on to discover what happens.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Ashenden, 29 May 2012
I heard a program on Radio 4 extra about Somerset Maugham, and was interested in his writing
The book was very good - mirrored Maugham's career as a spy in what was really a sequence of short stories

in terms of writing, although this was written after the first world war, the style is not dated; that applies to all good writers, such as Chandler, who have a truly rich style
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Ashenden (Vintage Classics)
Ashenden (Vintage Classics) by W. Somerset Maugham
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