Matthew Price, writer and book critic
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The TLS and the British Spy

In a fascinating piece about the relationship between two quintessential British institutions—the Times Literary Supplement and spying—the historian Keith Jeffery looks at how various TLS hands reviewed spy fiction and memoirs, genres which emerged in the years after WWI. Not surprisingly, the British Secret Intelligence Service was none too happy when ex-employees wanted to tell their story. But there was often not much to tell—Somerset Maugham, who worked as spy during the war, observed that the work of an agent was “on the whole extremely monotonous,” and produced much that was “uncommonly useless.” Maugham’s fictionalized versions of his experiences, which he collected in his Ashenden tales, hardly compare to the over the top action of Ian Fleming’s 007 novels. Indeed, the TLS reviewer, praising Maugham with faint damns, concluded that his work was “only moderately entertaining.”

Then there was the paranoid former Chief of Secret Service who outlined his memoir thus: “The book will be quarto size, bound in red, top-edge gilt, subtitled ‘The Indiscretions of the CSS.’ It will have four hundred pages, all blank.”


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