Ashenden, by W Somerset Maugham; The Mask of Dimitrious, by Eric Ambler; and Bad Actors, by Mick Herron

Summary: a glimmer of a new day on Spook Street?

As the increasing brutality and lawlessness of Boris Johnson’s British government becomes manifest, the forlorn cry of “We are better than this” emerges from time to time from the ineffectual British Left. To which, many South Asians, Africans and Irish respond with the question, “When exactly?”

England has certainly been different to this, as the attitudes on display in these three spy novels written over the course of the past century demonstrate. But it is not clear that it was much better when they were written.

Somerset Maugham’s Ashenden concerns the adventures of the eponymous writer who is recruited into British intelligence during the First World War, as Maugham himself was. The book is mostly set in and around Geneva, Maugham’s own principal intelligence haunt during his spooky days.

Starting in Istanbul, the superb Mask of Dimitrious traces a route through central Europe to Paris in the interwar years. It concerns another writer, Charles Latimer, as he tries to piece together the career of a man who has taken advantage of the bloody chaos following the collapse of the Central Powers to reinvent himself as a master criminal.

Bad Actors, is Mick Herron’s eighth novel in his glorious Slough House series. It follows the hilariously grotesque Jackson Lamb and his Joes as they collide with on-going Russian machinations to take advantage of Brexity Britain.

Each book echoes its antecedents. All three have a fine sense of place. But aside from this they are tonally quite different: Maugham a master of supercilious Englishness; Ambler more hard-boiled but with a keen awareness of the pity of post-First World War European history; and Herron is carefully attuned to how the farce of Brexit nourishes a similar authoritarianism to that which haunted the central Europe of Ambler’s book.

Taken together with Greene and Le Carre these novels suggest a society that has fundamentally changed over the century, shedding at least some of its ignorant self-satisfaction. Instead there appears to be a growing awareness of how Britain has often been an amoral or malign influence in the world. Now, reflected in Herron’s black comedic works, Britain’s silliness is increasing in proportion to its diminishing economic prospects and political influence.

Perhaps then there is a faint glimmer of hope that Britain can become “better than this.” Until then, different generations of spy writers offer interesting insights on how well it has understood what it has actually been.

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