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"Ashenden" redirects here. For the British railway junction, see Ashenden Junction.
1st edition (Heinemann)

Ashenden or: the British Agent is a 1928 collection of looslely 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, an Indian Nationalist 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. 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 Virendranath and Mata Hari's story. Winston Churchill reportedly advised Maugham to burn 14 other stories.[1][2]

Literary significance & criticism

It is an archetype of the espionage novel, a book to which more modern practitioners such as Eric Ambler, Ian Fleming, Graham Greene, Len Deighton, John le Carré, Robert Ludlum, and Alan Furst are indebted for its role in developing the genre.. An example of this is the device, which Fleming copied in the James Bond novels, of referring to the head of British Intelligence only by an initial.

Film and TV adaptations

The 1936 Alfred Hitchcock-directed film Secret Agent was 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.

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, and Alan Bennett as Grantly Caypor in the second.

  • "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 the novel Cakes and Ale. The character appears briefly in the book The Bloody Red Baron by Kim Newman.



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