The Secret Agent: A Simple Taleby Polish-British author Joseph Conrad, is anything but simple. Published in 1907, it’s the earliest example of realistic literary espionage I know of. Its complex plot centers on one Adolf Verloc. Verloc wears three faces: one face belongs to a small-time shopkeeper who lives in London’s Soho with his adoring—and fatally trusting—wife, Winnie; her little brother Stevie (who may be autistic); and Winnie’s mother.
Behind his dowdy public face hides another: Verloc is also part of an anarchist ring. His comrades gather often, talk much, but do next to nothing. The most radical of them is known only as “the Professor,” a nihilist who wanders London with a live bomb in his pocket and his hand on the trigger. He’s an incisive portrait of the “horseshoe theory” of political radicalism, where extreme left and extreme right meet up to the ruin of everyone in between.
But as we learn, in a neat twist, Verloc’s anarchist face hides another: He’s also an informant and agent provocateur for an unnamed foreign government (likely Russia). This government finds Britain’s comparatively open attitude toward political dissent a threat to their own internal control.
His handler, Mr. Vladimir, orders him to commit a terrorist act in order to provoke a crackdown, an action that would also ensnare Verloc’s comrades. He proposes bombing the Royal Greenwich Observatory. When Verloc balks at this daft idea, Vladimir threatens to expose him as an agent, betraying him to both his comrades and British authorities.
Verloc carries out his mission. But the attack goes wrong and an innocent is killed, leaving Verloc alone to face his pursuers in Scotland Yard, in British intelligence, and finally, within the walls of his own home. As Conrad painstakingly shows, Verloc and his comrades are mere pawns in a game they really no play no part in.
Joseph Conrad was a deeply political writer who seems to have hated politics. In this novel he portrays a world of politics as a sphere with no moral center and where everyone is at constant cross purposes. His view of terrorism is only partial—those more acquainted with more “successful” terrorist organizations may dispute his portrayal of terrorism.
Like his other work, The Secret Agent is a little dense and digressive for today’s readers, but it’s written in beautiful but careful prose throughout. Its picture of terrorism may be incomplete, but its gritty detail, pathos, and detached bitter view of politics are echoed in the work of John le Carré. It’s been adapted for the screen several times, including Alfred Hitchcock’s 1936 version, Saboteur, and, most recently, in 2016, a typically smooth and elegant BBC production that stars Toby Jones as Verloc that adds a romantic angle missing from this resolutely unromantic novel.
Thomas Burchfield is the author of ,a ripping, 1920s gangster thriller, which was praised as “incendiary” by David Corbett (The Long-Lost Love Letters of Doc Holliday; The Art of Character). His contemporary vampire novel won the IPPY, NIEA, and Halloween Book Festival awards for horror in 2012. He’s also author of the original screenplays Whackers, The Uglies, Now Speaks the Devil andDracula: Endless Night (e-book editions only). Published by , all are available at , , and other retailers. In addition , he’s also published in , The Strandand Filmfax. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.