In James Fenimore Cooper’s The Spy, the spy was Harvey Birch, who reported to George Washington. His mission was to watch British troop movements and learn what he could of their intentions. In the novel, he had an unofficial mission: to help Henry Wharton, a British officer, visit his family and return safely to his unit. In Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, the spy was Kimball O’Hara, an Irish orphan in India who became a spy for the British Empire. At the end of the novel, his mission was to obtain documents from a pair of Russian spies working in Northern India. Since Birch and Kim completed their missions successfully, we can think of them as good spies, spies skilled at spycraft.
In Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale, the spy is Adolf Verloc. As Birch and Kim are good spies, Verloc is a lousy spy. Perhaps he had been a competent spy at one time, but he’s now past his prime. Married, he runs a pornography shop in London’s Soho District. “Embassy people” to a country that is never named still employ him as a spy.
He answers to Mr. Vladimir, who’s disappointed in Verloc’s performance. As an agent provocateur, his mission was to incite the English radical movement into violence. Vladimir specifically wanted action against the Greenwich Observatory. He threatened to stop paying Verloc unless the observatory is bombed within the month. Vladimir’s demand becomes the instigating event that led to a failed terrorist plot, the death of an innocent victim, and the consequences that followed.
Though the novel is short, it’s packed with action and characters. It has no fewer than six point-of-view characters, six characters whose perspectives help tell this story. In the middle of the novel, Conrad employed an interesting narrative device that I’ll call relay narration. In a relay race, one runner passes the baton to the next runner. In The Secret Agent, we follow one character during a chapter until he meets another and has a scene with that new character. We follow the new character during the next chapter. Employing this device, Conrad takes us from Verloc and his associates to the detectives investigating the attack and up the food chain to the politicians who must deal with the incident.
He closed the door behind their backs with restrained violence, turned the key, shot the bolt. He was not satisfied with his friends. In the light of Mr. Vladimer’s philosophy of bomb throwing they appeared hopelessly futile. The part of Mr. Verloc in revolutionary politics having been to observe, he could not all at once, either in his own home or in larger assemblies, take the initiative of action. He had to be cautious. Moved by the just indignation of a man well over forty, menaced in what is dearest to him—his repose and his security—he asked himself scornfully what else could have been expected from such a lot, this Karl Yundt, this Michaelis—this Ossipon.
The novel eventually returns to Verloc, his wife, and his associates. Perhaps the tensest sequence involved his wife’s discovery that he’s a spy working for a foreign government, that he’s the author of the tragic events that happened in Greenwich. During this sequence, Conrad employed the unreliable narrator. We usually think of unreliable narration as a first-person device, but Conrad effectively used it in the third person. Though Verloc never understood his wife’s emotions or thoughts, the reader clearly understood them. So wrapped up was he in his crisis that he never once considered his wife’s. He paid the price for that misunderstanding.
Do I spend too much time admiring the writing? Am I ignoring the plot and the characters? But as I read it, I found myself less interested in the plot and the characters than usual. I was interested in the strategies Conrad employed to tell the story and reveal the characters. The Secret Agent is more interesting to the literary student than to the enthusiast of spy novels. Conrad scholars admire his style. In Lord Jim and The Heart of Darkness, his two most famous books, he distances the readers by having his narrator tell the stories to others. In The Secret Agent, he draws the reader into a complex story by employing relay narration. Conrad is skilled at delivering the story in interesting ways.
On December 3, 1857, Conrad was born Jósef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski. Though Polish, he was born in Ukraine, part of the Russian Empire. Tuberculosis claimed both of his parents—his mother in 1865, his father in 1869. A maternal uncle raised him. Though intelligent, Conrad hated school and performed poorly at his studies. Deciding his nephew needed a trade, the uncle sent Conrad to Marseilles to train as a seaman. Conrad, then 16, would spend the next fifteen years at sea. Working as a British merchant seaman, Conrad learned English. He settled in England, where he turned from the sea to literature. It’s uncommon for someone to become a famous writer in a language other than their first, but Conrad achieved that distinction. He died on August 3, 1924.
His parentage was obscure, and he was generally known only by his nickname of Professor. His title to that designation consisted in his having been once assistant demonstrator in chemistry at some technical institute. He quarrelled with the authorities upon a question of unfair treatment. Afterwards he obtained a post in the laboratory of a manufactory of dyes. There, too, he had been treated with revolting injustice. His struggles, his privation, his hard work to raise himself in the social scale, had filled him with such an exalted conviction of his merits that it was extremely difficult for the world to treat him with justice—the standard of that notion depending so much upon the patience of the individual. The Professor had genius, but lacked the great virtue of resignation.
In The Spy and Kim, I included a passage about the skills the protagonists employed to achieve their mission objectives, but Verloc has no skill as a spy. In his backstory, we learned that he had helped steal weapon technology from the French, but he was caught in that mission and spent time in prison. Perhaps the only skill he employed in The Secret Agent was infiltration. As a married shopkeeper, he blended into the British population without notice, and he befriended several radicals. Vladimir wanted him to use that infiltration to become a provocateur, to incite those radicals into violent action, but Verloc had no skill as a provocateur. The Secret Agent doesn’t tell us of a successful spy mission, but a failed one.
As I mentioned above, literature students will find The Secret Agent interesting for its style and narration. But if you’re looking for a tense, page-turning spy story, this isn’t it.