I was at first put off by the cartoonish cover until I saw the author’s name. Maugham was one of the Greats of the first half of the Twentieth Century. Here is a list of his work from enwikipeda:

Books 16
Novels 20
Articles 189
Collections 16
Plays 25
Books edited 19
Unpublished plays 11
Collected editions 22

He published his first novel in 1897, the same year he became a physician,  though he never practiced medicine. When would he have had time?

Many of his novels were built around collected short stories as is the case with this book. Maugham joined the Intelligence Department during the Great War and later wrote several short stories based on his own experiences. He did write that he had to fictionalize the events for the following reasons:

“Fact is a poor story-teller. It starts a story at haphazard, generally long before the beginning, rambles on inconsequently and tails off, leaving loose ends hanging about, without a conclusion. It works up to an interesting situation, and then leaves it in the air to follow an issue that has nothing to do with the point; it has no sense of climax and whittles away its dramatic effects in irrelevance.”

After a few pages describing how to write a story, Maugham adds, “The work of an agent in the Intelligence Department is on the whole extremely monotonous. A lot of it is uncommonly useless. … In 1917 I went to Russia. I was sent to prevent the Bolshevik Revolution and to keep Russia in the war. The reader will know that my efforts did not meet with success.”

He does not say which short stories comprise this novel, published in 1927. He does say that the head of the Department was known as R. Ian Fleming created M, but based it on his own boss during WWII, Admiral Godfrey who signed with a C, in green ink. I doubt that the real director of the Foreign Intelligence in the Great War used any of those letters. Since Admiral Godfrey, C in green is still used.

In 1916, during World War I, the two sections (foreign and domestic) underwent administrative changes so that the internal counter-espionage section became the Directorate of Military Intelligence Section 5 (MI5) and the foreign section became the Directorate of Military Intelligence Section 6 (MI6), names by which the Security Service and Secret Intelligence Service are commonly known today.

A couple of W Somerset Maugham’s most successful works are Of Human Bondage and The Razor’s Edge, neither of which I have read.

Enough of that, now for the review. I have only one serious problem which is easily dealt with. His last two stories or cases had one character each who talked endlessly. Maugham seems to have recorded their windiness. I remind you of his words above: whittles away its dramatic effects in irrelevance. I dealt with it by flipping pages until he returned to the action.

It is a nice slice of history. We get an idea of what it was like to work intelligence in that particular war. We also get to see what books were like in that era. They tell more than show. But we also get to see a master at work. For 99 cents, it was a good Amazon read.

Mike Lawrence


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