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This British Spy Thriller Shows How Thrill-Less Spying Can Be
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This British Spy Thriller Shows How Thrill-Less Spying Can Be

Book Reviews


Our friends at NPR Books have been offering up ideas for literature that relates to the news. This week they find inspiration in the news about the NSA. But if all this talk of espionage has you thinking of a certain suave Englishman, author Julia Keller says think again.

JULIA KELLER, BYLINE: Whenever I hear anything in the news about spying, two words slide into my mind like a couple of olives in a dry martini: James Bond. I love Ian Fleming's novels about that sleek cloak-and-dagger world made even more popular by the movies. But for something with a dash of moral ambiguity, I turn to Somerset Maugham. The British author best known for novels like "Of Human Bondage" also wrote spy fiction.

And even though his tales are set during the early 20th century, his hero has an epiphany that would right at home in the 21st: spying is more tedious than titillating. In 1928, Maugham published a collection of these short stories called "Ashenden: Or the British Agent." It's about a dapper, pleasure-loving playwright. He's recruited into the intelligence service during World War I, just as Maugham was in real life.

But both discover that the glamour is mostly an illusion. There's just one thing I think you ought to know before you take on this job, says Ashenden's mysterious new boss. If you do well, you'll get no thanks, and if you get into trouble, you'll get no help.

Ashenden soon realizes that spying is mostly just data collection. His life, he complains, is as orderly and monotonous as a city clerk's. Sure he stumbles on the odd murder and occasional betrayal, but his real job is to watch, listen and report back.

The Ashenden stories remind us that even when the stakes are profoundly high, a spy's task can be a low-down grind. It may sound romantic and enticing, but in the end the gathering of intelligence isn't thrilling, it's often tragic and very grubby.

CORNISH: The book by Somerset Maugham is called "Ashenden: Or the British Agent." Julia Keller is a book critic for the Chicago Tribune. Her latest novel is called "Bitter River."



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