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.