Book Reviews
2:53 pm
Fri December 20, 2013

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

Originally published on Sat December 21, 2013 4:46 pm

Thanks to the Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies, a panel appointed by President Obama, the practice of spying has been thrust back into headlines this week. The panel recommended that the NSA should stop collecting nearly all phone records, suggesting that a third party take responsibility instead for the database of records.

Tapping phones, searching records, international intrigue — these acts are not new events unfolding with the NSA. In fact, all this espionage has been a staple in novel and film for the better part of a century.

But if it has you thinking of a certain suave Englishman, author Julia Keller suggests that you think again. For "This Week's Must-Read" on All Things Considered, she recommends checking out a different kind of spy.


This Week's Must-Read

When you hear the phrase "spy fiction," two words slide into your mind like a couple of olives in a martini: James Bond. And yes, espionage has long been the stuff of popular fiction by the likes of Ian Fleming, Bond's creator. Yet some of our very finest literary writers, such as Joseph Conrad, Norman Mailer and W. Somerset Maugham, also have been drawn to the moral ambiguity of the cloak-and-dagger world.

This week, following a U.S. District judge's ruling that the National Security Agency went too far in its high-tech snooping, the Obama administration announced that it is reviewing the NSA's activities. And Maugham, the British novelist best known for works such as Of Human Bondage, would have keenly appreciated the administration's quandary as it seeks to balance privacy with national security. In a series of short stories, he chronicled the adventures of a writer turned spy named Ashenden, a dapper, pleasure-loving chap who is recruited — as was Maugham himself — into the British Secret Intelligence Service during World War I.

"There's one thing I think you ought to know before you take on this job," says the mysterious R., Ashenden's new boss. "If you do well, you'll get no thanks and if you get into trouble you'll get no help."

Ashenden soon discovers, however, that spying is really just data collection: His life, he complains, is "as orderly and monotonous as a city clerk's." There are brutal murders and heinous betrayals in these clever, diabolically entertaining stories, to be sure, but mostly his job is to watch, listen and report back.

The Ashenden stories remind us that even when the stakes are astronomically high, a spy's job can be a lowdown grind. We thrill to the idea of action — but in the end, the gathering of intelligence is not a rip-roaring yarn. It's often tragic, and very grubby.

Julia Keller is a reviewer for The Chicago Tribune and the author of Bitter River.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

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."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KELLER: You are listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.