The Great Impersonation and the British Spy

Okay, the heading to this post sounds like a thriller title, so thrillers it will be.

Recently, as a break from reading the early English novel, I read two 20th century novels dealing with spycraft–E. Phillips Oppenheim’s The Great Impersonation (1920) and W.Somerset Maugham’s linked stories in Ashenden, The British Agent (1928), the latter based in part on Maugham’s experiences as a gentleman spy in World War I.

My copy of The Great Impersonation was published by Pocket Books in 1943, so the publishers on the half-title page note that “In order to cooperate with the government’s war effort, this book has been made in strict conformity with WPB regulations restricting the use of certain materials.” And on the back cover, they have a note saying “Send this book to a boy in the armed forces anywhere in the U.S. . . . only 3¢ postage.” The book itself cost a quarter, although if you ordered it direct from the publisher, you had to include a nickel for “postage and handling.” A fun read.

There’s one great blurb (among several) that reads: “Mr. Oppenheim’s novel leaves us amazed that a writer can do so much with nothing more to work with than the elemental twenty-six letters of the alphabet.” The Hartford Courant

Shoot! Didn’t Homer only have 24 letters available in ancient Greek? And he did okay with the Odyssey. So that made for a good laugh even before starting the book.

As for Maugham, he has this to say about Ashenden: “He passed a good deal of his time in the bookshops turning over the pages of books that would have been worth reading if life were a thousand years long.” How true. My nearly 3,000-some life-time reading list, posted on my website (, would actually take about three lifetimes. But best to have a challenge to keep one a motivated reader!

As an owner of golden retrievers, I also liked this comment: “It is never very difficult to get to know anyone who has a dog.”

Anyway, great characterization in Maugham’s thriller and a laugh-out-loud funny conclusion to the portrayal of an endless talker. After a guy named Mr. Harrington has run on and on for a whole chapter, the last four paragraphs read as follows, with Harrington speaking first:

“Well, I never would have thought that eleven days in the train would pass so quickly. We’ve had a wonderful time. I’ve enjoyed your company and I know you’ve enjoyed mine. I’m not going to pretend I don’t know that I’m a pretty good conversationalist. But now we’ve come together like this we must take care to stay together. We must see as much of one another as we can while I’m in Petrograd.”
“I shall have a great deal to do,” said Ashenden. “I’m afraid my time won’t be altogether my own.”
“I know,” answered Mr. Harrington cordially. “I expect to be pretty busy myself, but we can have breakfast together anyway and we’ll meet in the evening and compare notes. It would be too bad if we drifted apart now.”
“Too bad,” sighed Ashenden.

Author: Ron

See this link for biographical info: