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Joseph Conrad: The Secret Agent
The eponymous secret agent is Verloc who is working as a spy for a foreign embassy in London, while also working as an informer for Scotland Yard. His wife, Winnie, is unaware of his activities and is more concerned for her simple-minded brother, Stevie. They run a shop in Soho and it is here where various shady characters meet, including the Professor, an American terrorist, Vladimir, the Russian agent provocateur and others. The foreign embassy is planning to target Greenwich Observatory and blame the revolutionaries and Verloc is ordered to carry out the attack. He uses the innocent Stevie to help him and the boy is killed when the bomb explodes. Winnie is grief-stricken at the death of her brother and, when her husband shows no remorse, kills him. Winnie flees with one of the terrorists but, when he learns of Verloc’s death, he steals her money and abandons her. She kills herself.
Ford Madox Ford called it one of the best–and certainly the most significant–detective stories ever written. F. R. Leavis said it was one of the most astonishing triumphs of genius in fiction and one of Conrad’s two supreme masterpieces, one of the two unquestionable classics of the first order that he added to the English novel. Hitchcock filmed it. However, other critics have pointed out that it has no hero. Frank Kermode said it was a story with an enormous hole in the plot. The book was a failure, both commercially and critically. Chesterton wrote The Man Who Was Thursday in response to it.
Conrad was clearly very critical of anarchism – we’ll see this again in Under Western Eyes – and he spares no expense to paint it in a black a manner as possible. Indeed, these characters are less anarchists and more nihilists, with no creed but their immediate self-interest and destruction for its own sake. London itself is one of the characters and this is the London Conrad describes as the monstrous city, unredeeming, gloomy, dark, with danger lurking in every corner. Indeed, there seems nothing or nobody worthwhile in the book, except perhaps for the innocent and simple Stevie, and this is the heart of the failure of the book – a magnificent failure but a failure nonetheless.
First published in 1907 by Methuen