Published in 1907, The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad centers on the intrigue and plotting of Adolf Verloc, a political agitator and a paid informant for an unnamed foreign government, most likely the now deceased Russian Empire. This book differs from Conrad’s better known sea-faring short stories and novels: The Secret Agent is a work of crime or spy fiction.
Verloc owns and operates a shop specializing in publications and photographs of dubious legality and morality (an adult bookstore in today’s parlance) and hosts regular meetings of political figures advocating anarchism and revolution in the capitals of Europe. Interestingly enough, these “radicals” are little more than failed criminals and intellectuals with benefactresses. This vanguard forms committees, launches into droning debates, and writes pamphlets with no audience. These radicals and revolutionaries are a rather sad, pathetic bunch. Thanks to Verloc, the police and foreign authorities know all their plans and movements, too.
Summoned to the embassy of his unnamed employer, Verloc is ordered by Mr. Vladimir, a foreign diplomat and a darling of English society, to bomb the Greenwich Observatory (the home of Greenwich Mean Time). Such an attack would be blamed on Verloc’s associates and spur the British government to crack down on the foreign political elements living and operating in Britain. Vladimir threatens to cut off Verloc’s funds and implies that Verloc’s role as an informant might become known, if he balks and refuses Vladimir’s instructions.
Clearly unwilling to plant a bomb himself and risk his own freedom and body, Verloc recruits and grooms his severely mentally disabled brother-in-law, Stevie. The bomb explodes earlier than timed and kills its carrier, Stevie, but no one else. Later, the police describe scooping up the young man’s remains with shovels.
Both the London police and Verloc’s fellow radicals work to solve the question: who was responsible for the failed bombing of the Observatory and what were their motivations? The police wish to rule out more attacks and put the public at ease. Verloc’s fellow travelers worry that the authorities will round them up and arrest them.
The Secret Agent is set in 1886 during the same period and in the same city, London, as the earlier adventures of Mr. Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle. Conrad’s and Doyle’s depictions of London and its pulse and energy couldn’t be more different. Although Holmes solves crimes and murders and circulates with unsavory elements, Doyle’s London is charged with mystery, wonder, and adventure. Every crime reaches a satisfying resolution and every criminal is delivered into the hands of justice. In contrast, Conrad’s London is choked by fog and grime and populated by duplicitous men of power and influence, predators, and nihilistic bombmakers. The public and the common people are pawns in a game played by world powers and sick men. This London is a dark, disturbing, and dangerous place.
Although published in 1907 and set two decades earlier, The Secret Agent seems rather modern in its cynical understanding of politics, law enforcement, and bureaucratic infighting. Chief Inspector Heat and his commanding officer, the Assistant Commissioner, pursue rival threads of the investigation in order to protect their own compromised positions, obfuscate their own professional or personal connections with different suspects, and to secure political leverage over each other. They are not selfless, devoted officers of the peace.
Terrorism and the fear of it are unfortunate facets of contemporary American life; both are much more real and present in other countries around the world. However, the terror depicted in The Secret Agent is very different from that of our day. This terror was produced by a government figure to induce repression–a false flag operation. More importantly, the terrorists–little more than quiet, ineffectual bourgeois thinkers–advocated for an overthrow of the political and economic order. Terrorism of our day is guided largely by religion and nationalism. Admittedly, such groups are intertwined with politics and economics, but those are lesser considerations in their philosophies and strategies. The agitators in Conrad’s book today sit in the dustbin of history.
If you’re hoping for insights into contemporary terrorism, The Secret Agent might disappoint. If you’re looking for a thrilling, gripping whodunnit, The Secret Agent will certainly disappoint. However, if you’re looking for a well-written and well-crafted story set an eerily familiar world with an element of suspense and moral ambiguity, you might enjoy The Secret Agent.