The Secret Agent

Joseph Conrad

The next installment in my own personal Great Greenwich Readathon, I was a little nervous of The Secret Agent. I fully expected it to be written in some ancient crusty old style, dry and dusty and only of academic interest.

But there’s only one way that books become classics, and as with virtually every classic I’ve ever read, I found myself drawn in to an intriguing web of ideas, not to mention genres. It was, frankly, easier to read than a kids’ book that I’m currently ploughing through in the name of completism.

It’s exactly one hundred years old this year – not that anyone else seems to have noticed – yet the themes of politics, terrorism and personal grief are as fresh now as ever. Even the concept of someone wanting to deliberately harm a great Greenwich monument isn’t entirely far-fetched given the context of last Monday’s events…

This was written at the very beginning of the genre novel when the rules of such things hadn’t solidified, and if you try to pigeonhole at it as such, you’ll find yourself tied in knots. What is it? A police procedural? Political satire? A straight tale of espionage? A thriller? Surely not a comedy? There are elements of all of these, but Conrad himself describes it as “a simple tale.” I would argue that ultimately it’s really about human frailty – the things we do for others – consciously or otherwise – and the real effect they have on those around us. It is a story of consequences and repercussions.

Set in London, around a dirty bookshop in Soho, the plot is centered on a real-life “anarchist” attempt to blow up Greenwich Observatory. Conrad took the news story and created a fiction around it, treading an unsettling path between what really happened and his own interpretations, intriguingly cynical for the times. In one of my favourite scenes, the sinister Mr Vladimir from an unnamed embassy, coolly reflecting on the best target for a terrorist attack, dismisses in turn a church, restaurants, theatres and art as not actually being horrific enough. He talks about targets the way a modern advertising exec might consider the best place to put a hoarding, with a clinical knowledge of what would really get to the core beliefs of each social class.

There are wonderful references to the area – the would-be terrorists get off at Maze Hill Station, and one of them escapes via the now-defunct Greenwich Park Station, but not without being spotted by the keeper of the Lodge at King William Gate (now the Cow and Coffee Bean Cafe.) But to just use this as an historic document would be a shame. Conrad’s writing rises above mere pot-boiler. There is something of Dickens in it – hardly surprising, he was a great fan, but it has an almost modern feel too. The futility of misplaced trust and ultimately pointless sacrifice on the part of several of the characters is told simply enough, but has a resonance that speaks today.

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