Category Archives: Spy Fiction

man has always found it easier to sacrifice his life than to learn the multiplication table.

Ashenden: Or the British Agent, by W. Somerset Maugham

Some books grow in memory, some diminish. I read Ashenden in chunks over a couple of months towards the back of 2016, and it’s fair to say that it’s one of the growers. Writing this now at the end of January 2017 I’m slightly puzzled that I didn’t include it in my end of year list.

Ashenden is an early piece of spy fiction based on Somerset Maugham’s own brief career as a spy in World War 1. The real author and the fictional character track pretty closely: both are recruited by a senior intelligence officer known as “R”; both are initially stationed in Switzerland; both are later sent on an urgent mission to Russia to help prevent the Russian revolution. Ashenden isn’t quite Maugham and this is fiction rather than autobiography, but at the same time Maugham lived what he writes.

ashenden

I love these Vintage covers for Maugham.

Ashenden is half-way between novel and short story collection. Many of the stories here can be read by themselves (and I did just that). Several are paired so that the first sets up a situation and the second resolves it. Taken together they create a chronology of Ashenden’s career as a spy.

Ashenden himself is a dryly humorous sort; intelligent but emotionally distant. He’s well suited to his role. Here he’s just accepted the job from R:

The last words that R. said to him, with a casualness that made them impressive, were:

‘There’s just one thing I think you ought to know before you take on this job. And don’t forget it. If you do well you’ll get no thanks and if you get into trouble you’ll get no help. Does that suit you?’

‘Perfectly.’

‘Then I’ll wish you good afternoon.’

The stories vary in quality as you’d expect. Some are closer to being interesting anecdotes than anything more substantial. Others are very good and there’s a definite cumulative effect. Neutral Switzerland is crammed with spies, most aware of each other and all of them constantly scheming and trying to win each other over to their side. Maugham captures the sense of time and place marvellously:

At that time Geneva was a hot-bed of intrigue and its home was the hotel at which Ashenden was staying. There were Frenchmen there, Italians and Russians, Turks, Rumanians, Greeks and Egyptians. Some had fled their country, some doubtless represented it. There was a Bulgarian, an agent of Ashenden’s, whom for greater safety he had never even spoken to in Geneva; he was dining that night with two fellow-countrymen and in a day or so, if he was not killed in the interval, might have a very interesting communication to make. Then there was a little German prostitute, with china-blue eyes and a doll-like face, who made frequent journeys along the lake and up to Berne, and in the exercise of her profession got little titbits of information over which doubtless they pondered with deliberation in Berlin.

It’s easy at times amidst the black-tie dinners and hotel conversations for the reader to forget that there’s a war on, but Maugham never quite lets you do so and the real cost of Ashenden’s work is never too far away. More than once Ashenden lures enemy assets over the French border so that they can be captured by the British and shot. Sometimes he sympathises with those he manipulates, admires them even, but that doesn’t prevent him doing his duty and he doesn’t wash his hands of his responsibility for their deaths.

Clear victories and defeats happen, but they’re in the minority. Mostly it’s bland routine coupled with uncertainty as to whether he’s won, or lost, or made any difference to anything at all.

Ashenden’s official existence was as orderly and monotonous as a city clerk’s. He saw his spies at stated intervals and paid them their wages; when he could get hold of a new one he engaged him, gave him his instructions and sent him off to Germany; he waited for the information that came through and dispatched it; he went into France once a week to confer with his colleague over the frontier and to receive his orders from London; he visited the market-place on market-day to get any message the old butter-woman had brought him from the other side of the lake; he kept his eyes and ears open; and he wrote long reports which he was convinced no one read, till having inadvertently slipped a jest into one of them he received a sharp reproof for his levity.

The stories have a nicely judged dry sense of humour running through them. I particularly enjoyed this exchange with R which is possibly the most British thing I’ve read in years:

‘I’m expecting a fellow to come and see me to-night,’ he said at last. ‘His train gets in about ten.’ He gave his wrist-watch a glance. ‘He’s known as the Hairless Mexican.’

‘Why?’

‘Because he’s hairless and because he’s a Mexican.’

‘The explanation seems perfectly satisfactory,’ said Ashenden.

The Hairless Mexican is a paid killer that Ashenden has to guide to a target (it’s not all Swiss hotel conversations and rote administration). Like many of those Ashenden encounters he’s a larger than life sort. The Mexican boasts to R that he doesn’t know ‘the meaning of the word failure.’ R dryly replies that ‘It has a good many synonyms’. So it does, and Ashenden’s mix of competence and fallibility is part of what makes this so enjoyable.

There are the occasional odd notes. Fairly early on there’s a piece of descriptive text which has aged very badly (“A scudding rain, just turning into sleet, swept the deck in angry gusts, like a nagging woman who cannot leave a subject alone.”) Mercifully it’s something of a one-off and I mention it mainly so that if you do try this you’re not put off by it.

R also uses some very ugly racist language at one point, but it’s pretty clearly in character and the individual he’s speaking of (an Indian rebelling against British rule) is shown in the narrative to be sympathetic, intelligent and honourable. Again, I mention it only in case a reader might have an issue with it but racist attitudes in upper-middle class Englishmen of the early 20th Century are hardly surprising, particularly in a colonialist context.

I mentioned in my review of Far Eastern Tales that my grandfather, Jim, was a big Maugham fan. Reading this I can see why. Maugham really is very good. He’s absolutely in command of his material, and while his style is arguably a little old fashioned that’s only because he was writing between 70 and a 100 years ago. He deserves his reputation.

One last note. While I think the book itself has held up well to the passing of time, the Preface hasn’t aged quite so successfully. Maugham complains about the inadequacies of Modernist fiction (without using that term) for no particularly obvious reason and in passing criticises the Impressionists, commenting of them that “it is strange how empty their paintings look now”. As of today he looks comically wrong, but in another 90 years majority opinion may be with him again. Who knows? Prediction is hard, particularly about the future.

Other reviews

None that I know of, but I’d be delighted to be told of any in the comments.

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Filed under Maugham, W Somerset, Short Stories, Spy Fiction

This is my real life. All the rest is fiction.

The Bathtub Spy, by Tom Rachman

I wanted to like this one. I enjoyed Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists (though with some reservations), and as soon as I saw he had a standalone short story out on kindle I snapped it up. Unfortunately, I’m left writing a review of a story that I didn’t hate but didn’t much like either.

Bathtub Spy

The narrator in this short story, Mr Tregwynt, is a reader. That’s true too of course of pretty much everyone who follows my blog. As we all know though, there are different species of readers. Tregwynt’s the sort who reads to escape. His days are frustrating, lonely and dull. In the evening he settles in a tub, opens a book and escapes into a better world:

Already, by the first sentence, I land on the galloping carriage of the story, and the drab locations I inhabit – this ramshackle house with Connie, the subway to the office, my bare cubicle there – dissolve, only black letters cantering across white pages now. This is my real life. All the rest is fiction.

The irony is what Tregwynt does in his office, his bare cubicle. He’s a translator in the intelligence community. He is, in a particularly unsexy way, a spy.

My work is mostly transcription. Wayne provides digital audio files and I render them into English. As such, I am privy to chatter that few others hear. And it is strikingly dull. Terror suspects, on wiretaps around the world, spend much of their time grumbling: their Internet connections are down again, their fellow cell member forgot to buy yogurt. If this is the enemy, he is cheeringly inept. Doubtless, they have their masterminds stuffed in a cave somewhere, just as we have ours in this concrete complex. Still, I’m starting to wonder if this War on Terror is waged partly between nitwits, theirs hostile to every book in the world but one, while ours – I glimpse Wayne typing a search into the classified military Internet for “awesome videos stuff blowing up” – are only slightly more formidable.

Wayne is the narrator’s team leader. Wayne is a petty workplace bully; a player of minor power games who sends the narrator on demeaning errands then keeps him waiting on his return while Wayne taps out an unimportant email or chooses to take a call. I’ve worked with people like that. I suspect most of us have. There is something peculiarly humiliating about hovering not sure whether to stay or go while someone shows their importance by carrying on as if you weren’t present.

Those days are behind me now since I’ve become more senior over time, and anyway I don’t work with people like that any more. Tregwynt’s not so lucky. He’s fifty-three years old, reporting to a man much younger than him and who he doesn’t respect at all. Wayne is vulgar and witless and so clueless he uses the name Iceman when ordering in pizza because he’s more in love with the idea of being a spy than actually doing a decent job as one.

Then, one day, Wayne notices Tregwynt reading a book, worse yet a book in French. Wayne is incredulous, dismissive, then he forces his own book by some Russian named Krapotnik onto Tregwynt and orders him to read it. Tregwynt is too mild-mannered not to comply , but how bad will a book read by Wayne be? He fears the worst, but what happens next is more terrible than anything he’d dreamt. Wayne’s choice of book is brilliant.

How could Wayne have read a book like this? How could someone have appreciated a work this fine, yet remained so foul? I don’t want to share anything with him. Not musical tastes. Not preferences in food. How could he like Krapotnik?

I won’t say more about what happens. The story follows Tregwynt and Wayne’s bizarre one-way book club and how it impacts their relationship. It’s well written, as the quotes above hopefully show, and much of it is funny.

So, why didn’t I like it then? The ingredients are all here. There’s that ironic contrast between the mundanity of Tregwynt’s existence and job and what we popularly imagine spies to be like (actually, this is exactly what I imagine a spy to be like, but that doesn’t diminish the irony any). There’s that question of how we reconcile discovering that people we despise like things we like (every time David Cameron names another band he likes a legion of left-wing music fans cry – how can he like The Smiths, The Jam, the Manics? Hell, how dare he?).

The problem for me was that it never really went anywhere. Rachman’s a natural at the short story form as he showed in The Imperfectionists, but for me this story was all setup and no payoff. I didn’t mind that I didn’t believe in Wayne, he’s meant to be a caricature after all. I did mind that I didn’t care about him or his relationship with Tregwynt. 

The Imperfectionists was funny (mostly), had great and well drawn characters and lovely little story arcs that intertwined with each other. I thought it had flaws, but I liked it and it’s held up well in memory. Here, well, it’s funny early on but the story has no real arc and the characters weren’t particularly interesting, or rather they were potentially interesting but they didn’t really do anything interesting.

Since Rachman is a writer of wit and character rather than of finely wrought artistic prose, not caring about the characters doesn’t leave much else to care about. I don’t necessarily want to put someone off reading this because Rachman has talent and there’s a risk of making it sound terrible when it’s merely not great. Still, if the quotes or the situation grab you then you could certainly do a lot worse, and as it’s a kindle single it’s both short and cheap. I just think he’s written better.

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Filed under Ebooks, Novellas, Rachman, Tom, Short Stories, Spy Fiction

Haven’t we all, at some time or another, washed out a shirt in the sink?

Alan Furst is a critically regarded, but not I think well known, writer of espionage novels set in Europe during the 1930s and 1940s. His best known point of comparison would be John Le Carre, and for those lacking patience to read further it’s fair to say that if you have a fondness for Le Carre you will likely enjoy Furst, and if not, likely not. Graham Greene is also plainly a strong influence on Furst’s work, as is Joseph Roth and Joseph Conrad (I’m told, I’ve not yet read Conrad).

The Polish Officer then is the third in a loosely linked series of novels set in wartime Europe. The novels are connected in that characters in one work may appear in others and in certain locations appearing in each. They also share a consistent focus on historical accuracy, realism and a certain bleak tone in keeping with this frankly rather bleak period. I have previously read Dark Star, second of the sequence, but not Night Soldiers, the first. As best I can tell, there is no consequence to the order in which the novels are read, though knowing now there is a sequence I shall likely follow it.

The Polish Officer opens with the German invasion of Poland, and with local intelligence officers pressed by necessity into service quite out of line with their training and work to date. One, a cartographer of minor aristocratic descent by the name of de Milja, becomes an active agent responsible for a number of operations which the book details – some successful, some not. A sense of fatalism is pervasive, soldiers and spies both are routinely sent on missions near certain to kill them, but continue from patriotism, from a desire for revenge or simply from a lack of better alternative. As matters open, de Milja must smuggle Poland’s gold reserves out of the country by train so as to ensure the government in exile remains in funds:

There were two people waiting for de Milja under the Dimek Street bridge: his former commander, a white-moustached major of impeccable manners and impeccable stupidity, serving out his time until retirement while his assistant did all the work, and de Milja’s former aide, Sublieutenant Nowak, who would serve as his adjutant on the journey south.
The major shook de Milja’s hand hard, his voice taught with emotion. ‘I know you’ll do well,’ he said. ‘As for me, I am returning to my unit. They are holding a line for me at the Bzura river.’ It was a death sentence and they both knew it. ‘Good luck sir,’ de Milja said, and saluted formally. The major returned the salute and disappeared onto a crowd of people on the train.

The book traces de Miljas career as a spy, in a period covering the first two or three years of the war, in which the German advance seemed unstoppable and country after country fall before their forces. Furst is tremendous at capturing the spirit of the time, most of all the fact now often forgotten that in this period victory for the allies did not look at all certain. With hindsight today, we tend to picture the second world war as a struggle against tyranny and extraordinary human evil. A war hard fought, but in which good finally triumphed. Furst’s novel has none of that sentiment, that moral reassurance, the war here is viciously fought, victory looks extremely doubtful and men and women both die fighting a foe which seems quite overwhelming.

Along with de Milja, we spend time in occupied Warsaw and Paris, we see London briefly and we see the frozen forests of the Ukraine as the Germans finally invade Russia, in the closing section of the novel. After that point of course, German invincibility was exposed as a myth and the tone of the war changed, after that point then is outside the scope of this novel which is about the fight before the anticipation of success.

Furst is excellent on the realities of life under occupation, the knocks on the door, the risk of looking the wrong way at the wrong person, the fear of reprisals for acts against the occupiers. The Germans plan to reduce the Poles to a slave race, intelligence gathered shows that the Poles are seen as undermen, subhumans who in future will have no need of traits such as literacy or speech beyond the grunt. Morale is maintained by missions in which Polish resistance officers fake leaflet drops from British aircraft promising British support coming soon to save Poland, although they know that no such planes or support are underway. Jokes speak of how pessimists learn German, optimists English and realists Russian. Returning from a brief trip to Romania:

On the train back to Warsaw he made a mistake.

A uniformed NKVD guard looked through his documents, reading with a slow index finger on each word, then handed them back silently. He got out of Rovno on a dawn train to Brzesc, near the east bank of the river that formed the dividing line between Russian and German occupation forces. On the train, two men in overcoats; one of them stared at him and, foolishly, he stared back. Then realised what he’d done and looked away. At the very last instant. He could see from the posture of the man – his age, his build – that he was somebody, likely civilian NKVD, and was about to make a point of it.
[The Russian has to leave the train, decides to get back on but is pulled away by his companion who doesn’t want to waste time.]
From the corner of his eye, de Milja could see the Russian as he glanced back one last time. He was red in the face. The man, de Milja knew beyond the shadow of a doubt, had intended to kill him.

De Milja’s missions are often remarkably prosaic, much time is spent on painstaking preparation, the leaflet drop mentioned above needing a plane, a pilot, a printer, each of which must be sourced and the obtaining of any of which could lead to betrayal and death for all concerned. Those captured are interrogated, tortured, always eventually tell all they know and always eventually are executed. Those who betray the resistance, or who are suspected of it, face little better fate being executed with bullets to the head under railway bridges, the passing trains masking the noise.

De Milja pays for discarded oily rags, to assess the quality of oil being issued to German armoured troops, for information on wool weight, to see if heavier coats are being made, this intelligence together revealing whether an invasion of Russia is planned. Much of de Milja’s work is focused on the seemingly prosaic:

Fedin shrugged. War was logistics. You got your infantry extra socks, they marched another thirty miles.

As the novel continues, de Milja is moved to occupied Paris, where he spies on barge movements to learn about plans to invade Britain, creates a network of radio-telegraph operators who risk capture each time they communicate with London, the Germans having their own technicians who listen for such broadcasts and use their own techniques for locating the broadcast source if it continues too long. De Milja becomes involved in direct operations against the planned invasion, Operation Sealion, he recruits local patriots or the merely disgruntled and most of them do not survive.

Again, Furst’s eye for life in an occupied city is tremendous, absurdities such as the German insistence that Paris be open for business so that it’s troops can be sent there as a reward for active service, restaurants and bars serving the conquerors, affairs between people who are not suited to each other but who are at least alive and available. All this is brought out, people scheme, hide, profit, collude and resist and during it all the German advance continues. Vehicles destroyed quickly repaired, men killed quickly replaced, British resistance looking surely doomed.

The Polish Officer is rich then in its sense of time, of place, of the realities of resistance and the terrible choices forced upon people in times of war. Where it is perhaps less strong is in its characterisation, we see de Milja’s relationship with his mentally ill wife, with his father, with women he becomes involved with and fellow operatives he works alongside, but I at least did not get a deep sense of de Milja himself. He is portrayed as an intelligent man, deeply fatalistic and fully expecting not to survive the war, fighting because that is all that is left to do, and because he is good at what he does and has not died yet. It is a convincing portrait, but it lacks the subtlety of depiction that I found in Dark Star whose protagonist Andre Szara – a Pravda journalist – is a much more interesting and complex individual. De Milja is in a sense a vehicle through which we visit the past, his own personality often intentionally suppressed while he assumes the identities of others, but also I think suppressed so that the reader can better experience directly the world de Milja inhabits.

On the terrace of the Dragomir Niculescu restaurant, a man at leisure -or perhaps he simply has no place to go. A respectable gentleman, one would have to say. The suit not new of course. The shirt a particular colour, like wheat meal, that comes from washing in the sink and drying on a radiator. The posture proud, but maybe, if you looked carefully, just a little lost. Not defeated, nothing that drastic. Haven’t we all had a moment of difficulty, a temporary reversal? Haven’t we all, at some time or another, washed out a shirt in the sink?

Ultimately, this is an intelligent and rewarding work by an author fully conversant with his material and with a genuine knack for communicating fear, tension and the the small details of the world he has chosen to write about. Warsaw, Paris, London, the Ukraine, all convince, Furst knows his period and knows the war and although I did not enjoy The Polish Officer quite as much as I did Dark Star it was nonetheless definitely a rewarding read and I fully intend to read others by him.

The Polish Officer. Unfortunately, the current covers are rather bland, following a recent publishing trend to show shadowy figures in fog bound Central European landscapes, making a vast array of diverse books all look like they are much of a muchness. A shame, but if the cover fails to persuade, at least the contents do.

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Filed under Furst, Alan, Historical Fiction, Military Fiction, Spy Fiction

The bitch is dead

Casino Royale, by Ian Fleming

Originally posted 24 June 2008. Apologies to those who left comments, which have been lost.

Generally I’m going to try to avoid writing about books I haven’t read witih a week or so of posting about them, but occasionally I may write about older reads that caught my interest in some particular way.

A month or two back I watched the Daniel Craig Casino Royale movie on dvd, it was ok (it wasn’t interesting enough to merit major comment) but prompted me out of curiosity to read the original novel. This entry contains spoilers about the plot of the novel, on the assumption that most people are pretty familiar with it, at least in broad outline.

So, I got the Penguin Modern Classics edition of Casino Royale, by Ian Fleming of course.

It’s an interesting read in some ways, the new movie is astonishingly faithful to it, as faithful as it can be given it’s set post the cold war and so has to create new villains. The novel though makes the James Bond character even more brutal and sociopathic than the film chose to.

The best part of the novel is the opening line: “The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning.” Generally the prose is workmanlike, spare, plain. It’s a very matter of fact manner of writing (and there’s nothing wrong with that, I like Hemingway and his prose is deeply matter of fact). The book reads quickly, the prose largely doing its job and delivering the plot to the reader without linguistic distractions. Given the book is intended as a “pillow fantasy” in Fleming’s words, the prose style fits the novel’s intent.

Bond as a character has little by way of inner life, he’s essentially a sociopath, a brutal killer without remorse or much by way of compassion. He is a deeply unlikeable character (not that characters need be likable for a book to be rewarding or enjoyable), but at the same time plainly aspirational. It’s an interesting mix, clearly the male reader (and the intended reader is I think male) is intended to see Bond as in some ways a real man, blunt, efficient, strong, certain, lacking in weakness. That he is also, and is plainly depicted as, something of a monster does not reduce his aspirational qualities. Possibly it enhances them.

The book itself was written in the dog days of austerity Britain, a time when rationing was ending and when luxuries were few and far between. Accordingly, as an escapist fantasy it dwells heavily on luxury, on fine food and on a lifestyle that its readers could at that time only dream of. Even the orange juice Bond drinks is aspirational, expensive and rare at the time this would first have been read. By the time we get to the full meals, the heavy breakfasts, the cocktails, the novel is an orgy of consumption and almost pornographic in its attention to culinary pleasure. The novel contains sex scenes, but more care is lavished on the food and drink.

Otherwise, the novel is, as might be expected, also very concerned with surfaces and brands. Even the headlights on Bond’s car are referred to by brand. It is an extraordinarily consumerist work, again I suspect because of the austerity being experienced by those who would first have been reading it. It is, above all else, an escapist fantasy.

Characterisation is weak, particularly the female characters. Nobody has nuances, but I’m not sure in a novel of this sort that’s a fault, it’s a page-turner, not a character study. More troublingly though is that the novel (not just Bond as a character) is deeply sexist, arguably even misogynistic. This is at its most apparent when Fleming writes of Bond’s love for Vesper Lynd, and Fleming (writing descriptively, not in character) comments that sex with her would always have “the sweet tang of rape”. Personally, I struggle with the concept of rape having a sweet tang, and I think that line goes beyond the casual sexism one would naturally expect of a Bond novel into something quite unpleasant.

Bond wins at cards of course, though oddly in large part due to luck more than anything else. For a super agent he is surprisingly ineffective in some regards, first losing to Le Chiffre and then once bailed out by the Americans wagering his entire stake on one entirely random deal of the cards which he knows he is statistically as likely to win or lose. The famous torture scene is brutal, and one of the more effective parts of the novel, but like much of the novel is almost sadistic in the level of attention paid to Bond’s suffering. Bond wholly fails to spot the problems relating to Lynd, mostly as best I can tell for plot reasons rather than any internally consistent ones.

Pacing wise the novel is odd, the last part of the novel is all about Bond’s romance with Lynd after he has defeated Le Chiffre, and the discovery of her betrayal. It leads to a lengthy sequence in which Bond reconsiders his life and enjoys a romantic idyll, almost as if he steps into another genre. Then normal service is resumed, Lynd dies as she must since Bond as an uber-male must be unencumbered by female sentiment, and Bond goes on a revenge quest against Smersh (the Russian bad guys).

Overall I didn’t like the novel, the prose is workmanlike (which can be fine where there are other elements of interest, but there aren’t here), the characters weakly drawn, the sweet tang of rape a line so repugnant it threw me right out of the novel. I’ve also read in recent months The Ipcress File by Len Deighton and Call for the Dead by John Le Carre (his first novel in fact).

Deighton portrays a moral ambiguity to the world of espionage, a world of political allegiances rather than ethical ones. Le Carre similarly shows a world of tired professionals and betrayed zealots, and in the process illustrates nicely the personal cost to those involved in terms of relationships and ruined lives. Both are vastly better novels than Casino Royale, and The Ipcress File manages to be a better written novel while also being a page turner (not sure I’d call Le Carre a page turner, much as I enjoy him). Even within the world of the spy novel then, there are better alternatives available.

I don’t see myself reading more Fleming, I can’t rule it out for certain but the book was mostly of historical interest as an insight into the escapist fantasies of a long since lost austerity Britain. In terms of espionage fiction, Deighton, Le Carre, or more recently Alan Furst or 54 by Wu Ming (a book in which Casino Royale is referenced, not favourably, by some of the characters) are all better choices. They don’t have absurd badly dressed Russians who incompetently blow themselves up (thus again saving the peculiarly ineffective but lucky Bond), but they are well written and have something to say, working both as thrillers and as novels about larger issues.

Casino Royale works in one sense precisely as intended, as an escapist fantasy without consequences or much to trouble the brain. But the period attitudes, the obsession with consumption of items that are now quotidian, the odd pacing and Bond’s own peculiar incompetence in my view suggest that if one is seeking a bit of gung ho escapism there are probably more recent writers who would make a better choice. For me, it’s main interest now is historical.

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Casino-Royale-Penguin-Modern-Classics/dp/0141187581/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1214316839&sr=1-3

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Filed under Fleming, Ian, Spy Fiction