A British writer gallivants around Europe conducting light espionage during the first World War. Based on Maugham's own experience doing the same, this book contains a number of separate stories, clearly chronologically linked but with no shared plot. Ashenden is batted around a bit by his handlers, and must learn the ropes quickly. He muddles through with a deft touch, a dry sense of humor, and a lot of luck.
This work is a kind of anthropology of the world's nations. Ashenden's portraits of a Mexican general, a British diplomat, a German fraulein are funny, unsparing, a little racist, but ultimately full of love. In the final story, the longest and most emotionally affecting in the book, our narrator gets tangled up in St Petersburg with an American businessman and a beautiful Russian intellectual during the autumn of 1917: the chaos that comes to surround this little group draws out their contrasts and delivers them to the fate predetermined for each by their national character.
Ashenden mostly floats above Continental turmoil and suffering throughout the war due to British privilege and a sense of humor. At the very end, with a close companion shot dead in the street, he has a chance to let in the cruelty of war; the last line is a joke which leaves us a little unsure of whether he opens up to the pain or continues to float.