Jan 25, 2018 in Research

Spy Stories


Spy stories have always been popular among readers. The character of a spy is usually associated with dangers, fights, braveness, and even boldness for the sake of peace and stability. Writers describe spies as true heroes, whose achievements are mostly hidden from the public eye. In other words, no one sees spies in action, but the peace and stability in many countries depends on the quality of their work. Ian Fleming's James Bond has become one of the brightest spy characters the society has ever seen. Everyone knows James Bond for his critical thinking abilities and loyalty to his country, but not everyone knows that Bond is not the first successful image of a spy in literature. Somerset Maugham's Ashenden was created on the basis of Maugham's experiences as a British agent in Russia. The character is equally similar to and different from the character of James Bond. Both work in the field of intelligence, use wisdom and cold calculation in their decisions, but while Bond is a man of action, Ashenden is more of an observer, who keeps silence and looks even dull against the bright personality of charismatic James Bond.

Somerset Maugham's Ashenden is the earlier version of Ian Fleming's James Bond. The main thought conveyed in Maugham's short stories is that there is nothing interesting about espionage. On the contrary, it is routine work that is quite similar to other work positions, professions, and occupations. Nowhere else is this routine image as bright as it is in Maugham's "Miss King" and "The Traitor." In these two stories, Maugham depicts Ashenden as a professional spy, who still has to solve many bureaucratic problems related to salaries, hiring new people, and others. In "The Traitor", Maugham describes Ashenden's visit to Basil (456). Here, the writer mentions the fact that Ashenden is put in charge of several other spies from Switzerland, and he must constantly monitor their performance (Maugham, "The Traitor" 457).  He goes to Basil to discuss the bonus and salary problems with one of their agents, and it seems that Ashenden must regularly fulfill this kind of obligations. At the same time, and like James Bond, Ashenden is always on alert. He must turn back to see if anyone follows him. Like James Bond, he should be extremely cautious and even suspicious of everything that is happening to him. Being suspicious is essential for both spies, because this trait of character can save their lives. It saves the life of James Bond, when he walks from the bar towards his hotel and sees two unknown man with suitcases:

"There was something rather disquieting about their appearance. They were both small and they were dressed alike in dark and, Bond reflected, rather hot looking suits. […] Then with a blinding flash of white light there was the earsplitting crack of a monstrous explosion and Bond […] was slammed down to the pavement by a bolt of hot air "(Fleming 20).

Attention to details and suspicion often save the life of Ashenden, especially when he speaks to police (Maugham, "Miss King" 418).

Both Ashenden and Bond use cold calculation to make decisions, but they are not secured from simple mistakes. Actually, both spies change readers' opinions about espionage. Both authors, Maugham and Fleming, are much more interested in what their characters think rather than what they prefer to do. Both authors trace the development of the most unusual ideas in their characters' heads. It is particularly interesting to look behind the curtain and try to understand the essence of intelligence and spy work from within. One of the most remarkable spots is when Ashenden must meet two policemen in his hotel room (Maugham, "Miss King" 420). Maugham describes Ashenden's thoughts and, moreover, his fears. In Maugham's book, the spy is a human, not a robot. He can have fears and make mistakes. James Bond also has fears. He sometimes feels uncertain about the future success of his actions and tasks. Nevertheless, he manages to maintain a cold look, so cold that even his Number Two, his female partner, cannot escape it: "'He is very good looking […] but there is something cold and ruthless in his …" (Fleming 18). This is what Lynd says about James Bond upon their first meeting.

Ashenden and Bond are very different in their work and orientation. In other words, while Ashenden spends most of his time fulfilling routine obligations, Bond is burdened with all kinds of dangerous tasks, which render him as more proactive and even heroic than Ashenden. Bond looks more independent in his decisions. He is more focused on one or two projects, while Ashenden is being torn among numerous different obligations. Bond's life is filled with dangers and various life threats, while Ashenden's life is gray and even dull. At times, it seems that Bond is more of a personality than Ashenden. Ashenden "was often slightly tired of himself and it diverted him for a while to be merely a creature of R.'s facile invention" (Maugham, "The Traitor" 459). Unlike James Bond, Ashenden is antiheroic. At the same time, he is more of an observer than Bond. This lack of outstanding personality features makes Ashenden extremely suitable for this kind of job. Bond prefers action to observation. It seems that Bond is a more updated version of Ashenden, a more colorful character that keeps the reader constantly engaged. At the same time, it is Ashenden who creates a more realistic picture of what it takes to be a spy.


James Bond is an expanded and updated version of Aschenden. Both are spies, use their critical thinking skills to make reasonable decisions and apply to cold calculation in the most difficult situations. However, Ashenden looks quite ordinary and even dull against the charismatic image of Bond. Ashenden is an observer, not a hero, and the lack of outstanding personality features makes him very suitable for this job. James Bond looks more colorful and heroic to his readers, although it is clear that Ashenden presents a more realistic picture of what it means to be a spy.


Related essays