The Secret Agent - Joseph Conrad

The Secret Agent – Joseph Conrad

Book Review of The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad

I’ve just re-read Conrad’s The Secret Agent and found it as fresh and relevant today as when I first read it about thirty years ago.  The Secret Agent reminds its readers that Victorian London was a place where terrorism and bombing were feared: the threat of anarchy and revolution was never too far from public consciousness.

Despite its serious theme, the book is very funny with almost all the characters failing to cope successfully with the complex situations they have to deal with.

Our hero, Mr Verloc is a shambling, slothful middle-aged man who owns a shop in a dingy part of London which sells a variety of tawdry articles:

The window contained photographs of more or less undressed dancing girls, nondescript packages in wrappers like patent medicines, closed yellow paper envelopes, very flimsy and marked two and six in heavy black figures; a few numbers of ancient French comic publications hung across a string as if to dry; a dingy blue china bowl, a casket of black wood, bottles of marking ink and rubber stamps; a few books with titles hinting at impropriety . . . the customers were either very young men who hung about the window for a time before slipping in suddenly; or men of a more mature age, but looking generally as if they were not in funds.

Joseph Conrad – The Secret Agent

Mr Verloc lives behind the shop with his wife Winnie and her mother and brother – an unemployable young man who today would have been described as having “learning difficulties”.  We soon learn that the shop is a cover for Mr Verloc’s real profession as a secret agent.  

He has been employed by a foreign embassy (possibly Russian) for a number of years, gathering around him an anarchist cell – not because he himself is an anarchist but because he is paid to act as a double-agent with the task of infiltrating underground movements in order to pass on information about them.

In recent years however, Verloc has grown fat and complacent.  A new ambassador has come to the embassy who has looked hard at the value Verloc is giving in return for his monthly stipend and calls him in to the Embassy for a dressing down.  

Verloc’s new director, “Mr Vladimir” tells Verloc that an international conference is about to take place in Milan and a startling event is required to shock the European leaders out of their complacency and to take strong action against what we would today call international terrorism.

A series of outrages is required, here in England, because the British take no notice of terrorism unless it happens within borders.  What is required is a strike at something which symbolises Britishness, something which will shock the nation to the core and stiffen their resolve to combat the anarchists in their midst.  

Mr Vladimir instructs Verloc to blow up the First Meridian, the Royal Observatory in Greenwich.  A “dynamite outrage” is required otherwise Verloc will be sacked from his position as Secret Agent.

I won’t go into the subsequent events, but needless to say, the whole plan goes terribly wrong, both for Mr Verloc and for his family.  Verloc is not a clever man, and neither are his anarchist friends.  They are far more used to armchair debates than actually taking action to bring down society.  

The only character with any sense of resolve and determination is the supplier of the dynamite, an individual called “The Professor”, who carries dynamite and a detonator around on his person at all times to discourage the police from arresting him (a fore-runner of a suicide bomber perhaps?).

The police, in the person of Inspector Heat, are fully aware of the anarchist cell around Verloc, but for various reasons are prepared to let it continue on the basis that it is better to be able to observe it than to stamp on it and have its members re-form in secret.  

Inspector Heat is a master of managing situations in a tolerant and compromising way, even to the extent of allowing The Professor to carry on with his dynamite factory than to eliminate it entirely.  The politicians, both Russian and British are schemers too,  and we soon realise that no-one in this novel is quite as one would expect, each one labouring under confused motives and unclear objectives.

Above all, The Secret Agent is a very enjoyable read.  Conrad knew how to tell a good story, and we watch this one unfolding slowly with a sense of horror at the terrible events that happen while also laughing at the absurd characters Conrad has created.