Ashenden: Or the British Agent
Ashenden: Or the British Agent is a 1928
1928 in literature
The year 1928 in literature involved some significant events and new books.-Events:*Ford Madox Ford publishes Last Post. It is the final book of a four-volume work titled Parade's End published between 1924 and 1928....

 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 summary

A playwright called Ashenden is recruited by Colonel R., a British Intelligence officer. He is sent to Switzerland where he becomes involved in a series of adventures. In one he accompanies a man called the Hairless Mexican to Italy, where a Greek agent of the Germans is to be assassinated. In another he must get an Italian dancer to induce her Indian lover, a German agent, to cross the border into Switzerland to see her, so that Ashenden can arrest him.


  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


It is said that Somerset Maugham modelled the character of John Ashenden after himself and Chandra Lal after Virendranath Chattopadhyaya
Virendranath Chattopadhyaya
Virendranath Chattopadhyaya alias Chatto was a prominent Hindu Indian revolutionary who aimed to overthrow the British Raj in India by using violence as a tool...

, an Indian Nationalist
Indian independence movement
The term Indian independence movement encompasses a wide area of political organisations, philosophies, and movements which had the common aim of ending first British East India Company rule, and then British imperial authority, in parts of South Asia...

 in Germany during the war. 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
Berlin Committee
The Berlin Committee, later known as the Indian Independence Committee after 1915, was an organisation formed in Germany in 1914 during World War I by Indian students and political activists residing in the country. The purpose of the Committee was to promote the cause of Indian Independence...

. Donald Gullick
Donald Gullick
Donald "Don" Gullick was a Welsh woodwork teacher at Ashton Grammar School, and rugby union and professional rugby league footballer of the 1950s, and rugby league coach of the 1950s and '60s, who at club level played rugby union for Pontypool RFC, and at representative level played rugby league ...

, a British agent, was dispatched to assassinate Chattopadhaya while the latter was on his way to Geneva
Geneva In the national languages of Switzerland the city is known as Genf , Ginevra and Genevra is the second-most-populous city in Switzerland and is the most populous city of Romandie, the French-speaking part of Switzerland...

 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
Mata Hari
Mata Hari was the stage name of Margaretha Geertruida "M'greet" Zelle , a Dutch exotic dancer, courtesan, and accused spy who was executed by firing squad in France under charges of espionage for Germany during World War I.-Early life:Margaretha Geertruida Zelle was born in Leeuwarden, Friesland,...

's story. Winston Churchill reportedly advised Maugham to burn 14 other stories.

Literary significance & criticism

It is an archetype of the espionage novel
Spy fiction
Spy fiction, literature concerning the forms of espionage, was a sub-genre derived from the novel during the nineteenth century, which then evolved into a discrete genre before the First World War , when governments established modern intelligence agencies in the early twentieth century...

, a book to which more modern practitioners such as Eric Ambler
Eric Ambler
Eric Clifford Ambler OBE was an influential British author of spy novels who introduced a new realism to the genre. Ambler also used the pseudonym Eliot Reed for books co-written with Charles Rodda.-Life:...

, Ian Fleming
Ian Fleming
Ian Lancaster Fleming was a British author, journalist and Naval Intelligence Officer.Fleming is best known for creating the fictional British spy James Bond and for a series of twelve novels and nine short stories about the character, one of the biggest-selling series of fictional books of...

, Leslie Charteris
Leslie Charteris
Leslie Charteris , born Leslie Charles Bowyer-Yin, was a half-Chinese, half English author of primarily mystery fiction, as well as a screenwriter. He was best known for his many books chronicling the adventures of Simon Templar, alias "The Saint."-Early life:Charteris was born to a Chinese father...

, Graham Greene
Graham Greene
Henry Graham Greene, OM, CH was an English author, playwright and literary critic. His works explore the ambivalent moral and political issues of the modern world...

, Len Deighton
Len Deighton
Leonard Cyril Deighton is a British military historian, cookery writer, and novelist. He is perhaps most famous for his spy novel The IPCRESS File, which was made into a film starring Michael Caine....

, John le Carré
John le Carré
David John Moore Cornwell , who writes under the name John le Carré, is an author of espionage novels. During the 1950s and the 1960s, Cornwell worked for MI5 and MI6, and began writing novels under the pseudonym "John le Carré"...

, Robert Ludlum
Robert Ludlum
Robert Ludlum was an American author of 23 thriller novels. The number of his books in print is estimated between 290–500 million copies. They have been published in 33 languages and 40 countries. Ludlum also published books under the pseudonyms Jonathan Ryder and Michael Shepherd.-Life and...

, and Alan Furst
Alan Furst
Alan Furst is an American author of historical spy novels set just prior to and during the Second World War.-Biography:...

 are indebted for its role in developing the genre.. An example of this is the device, which Fleming copied in the James Bond
James Bond
James Bond, code name 007, is a fictional character created in 1953 by writer Ian Fleming, who featured him in twelve novels and two short story collections. There have been a six other authors who wrote authorised Bond novels or novelizations after Fleming's death in 1964: Kingsley Amis,...

 novels, of referring to the head of British Intelligence
Secret Intelligence Service
The Secret Intelligence Service is responsible for supplying the British Government with foreign intelligence. Alongside the internal Security Service , the Government Communications Headquarters and the Defence Intelligence , it operates under the formal direction of the Joint Intelligence...

 only by an initial. In fact, the director of MI6 has always been known as "C", supposedly for "chief", but actually because the first director, Sir Mansfield Smith-Cumming, signed departmental paperwork with that initial.

Film and TV adaptations

The 1936 Alfred Hitchcock
Alfred Hitchcock
Sir Alfred Joseph Hitchcock, KBE was a British film director and producer. He pioneered many techniques in the suspense and psychological thriller genres. After a successful career in British cinema in both silent films and early talkies, Hitchcock moved to Hollywood...

-directed film Secret Agent was a loose adaptation of "The Traitor" and "The Hairless Mexican", with John Gielgud
John Gielgud
Sir Arthur John Gielgud, OM, CH was an English actor, director, and producer. A descendant of the renowned Terry acting family, he achieved early international acclaim for his youthful, emotionally expressive Hamlet which broke box office records on Broadway in 1937...

 as Ashenden (whose "real" name is Edgar Brodie), and Peter Lorre
Peter Lorre
Peter Lorre was an Austrian-American actor frequently typecast as a sinister foreigner.He caused an international sensation in 1931 with his portrayal of a serial killer who preys on little girls in the German film M...

 as The General.

A number of the stories formed the basis of the 1991 four-part BBC1 series Ashenden, directed by Christopher Morahan
Christopher Morahan
Christopher Thomas Morahan CBE is an English stage and television director and producing manager.-Training and career:Morahan was born in London in 1929, and was educated at Highgate School...

, with Alex Jennings
Alex Jennings
Alex Jennings is an English actor whose roles have included Charles, Prince of Wales in The Queen .-Early years:...

 in the title role, Joss Ackland
Joss Ackland
Sidney Edmond Jocelyn Ackland CBE , known as Joss Ackland, is an English actor who has appeared in more than 130 films and numerous television roles.-Early life:...

 as Cumming and Ian Bannen
Ian Bannen
Ian Bannen was a Scottish character actor and occasional leading man.-Early life and career:Bannen was born in Airdrie, North Lanarkshire, the son of Clare and John James Bannen, a lawyer. Bannen served in the British Army after attending St Aloysius' College, Glasgow and Ratcliffe College,...

 as 'R'. Guest actors included Harriet Walter
Harriet Walter
Dame Harriet Mary Walter, DBE is a British actress.-Personal life:She is the niece of renowned British actor Sir Christopher Lee, as the daughter of his elder sister Xandra Lee. On her father's side she is a great-great-great-granddaughter of John Walter, founder of The TimesShe was educated at...

 as Giulia Lazzari in the first episode, Alan Bennett
Alan Bennett
Alan Bennett is a British playwright, screenwriter, actor and author. Born in Leeds, he attended Oxford University where he studied history and performed with The Oxford Revue. He stayed to teach and research mediaeval history at the university for several years...

 as Grantly Caypor in the second, and Alfred Molina
Alfred Molina
Alfred Molina is a British-born American actor. He first came to public attention in the UK for his supporting role in the 1987 film Prick Up Your Ears...

 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.
  • "The Dark Woman" (1 February 1991)
  • "The Traitor" (8 February 1991)
  • "Mr Harrington's Washing" (15 February 1991)
  • "The Hairless Mexican" (22 February 1991)

Other appearances

Ashenden is the narrator of Maugham's 1930 novel Cakes and Ale
Cakes and Ale
Cakes and Ale: or, the Skeleton in the Cupboard is a novel by British author William Somerset Maugham. It is often alleged to be a thinly veiled roman à clef examining contemporary novelists Thomas Hardy and Hugh Walpole — though Maugham maintained he had created both characters as composites...

. The character appears briefly in the book The Bloody Red Baron
The Bloody Red Baron
The Bloody Red Baron is a 1995 novel by British author Kim Newman. It is the second book in the Anno Dracula series and takes place thirty years after the former.-Plot:...

by Kim Newman
Kim Newman
Kim Newman is an English journalist, film critic, and fiction writer. Recurring interests visible in his work include film history and horror fiction—both of which he attributes to seeing Tod Browning's Dracula at the age of eleven—and alternate fictional versions of history...

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