Verloc's an odd character, nervy yet ruthlessly cold. It's striking to post-war readers that his first name is Adolf. He's also a pretty terrible spy. But the thrill of the book is in getting into his head – and the heads of other characters – and understanding why he might do such wretched, despicable things.
The book begins with Verloc called to a foreign embassy where the new chap in charge is unimpressed by the titbits of information he's supplied over the years. Mr Vladimir wants Verloc to do something more noticeable. And a simple bombing will not suffice.
As Vladimir explains in a two-page speech, the middle classes are no longer impressed by attempts on the lives of crowned heads or presidents.
“It has entered into the general conception of the existence of all chiefs of state. It's almost conventional – especially since so many presidents have been assassinated.”Explosions in churches and restaurants are no good either. The papers even have “ready-made phrases” to explain them: they are social revenge or exasperation.
Joseph Conrad, The Secret Agent, p. 35.
“The sensibilities of the class you are attacking are soon blunted ... You can't count upon their emotions either of pity or fear for very long. A bomb outrage to have any influence on public opinion now must go beyond the intention of vengeance or terrorism. It must be purely destructive. It must be that, and only that, beyond the faintest suspicion of any other object. You anarchists should make it clear that you are perfectly determined to make a clean sweep of the whole social creation. But how to get that appallingly absurd notion into the heads of the middle classes so that there should be no mistake?”Vladimir quickly dismisses the thought of a bomb in the National Gallery since “artists – art critics and such like – [are] people of no account”. Instead, the best target is science.
“It would be really telling if one could throw a bomb into pure mathematics. But that is impossible ... I have also given some attention to the practical aspect of the question. What do you think of having a go at astronomy?”Thus Verloc is dispatched to blow up the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. Conrad was inspired by a real attempt on the Observatory in 1894, ten years after the International Meridian Conference in Washington DC voted 22-1 in favour of defining Greenwich as 0° longitude, or the line between East and West hemispheres. The French abstained from the vote, and French maps continued to use the Paris Meridian until 1911. The bomber in 1894 was French.
Ibid, pp. 36-7.
But there's no sense of clashing imperialism in Conrad's book. Instead, the anarchists work independently, even against one another. There's a sense that Verloc and his wife are both trapped by their genetic inheritance. We're often given physical descriptions of people as an insight into their characters. Winnie Verloc, we learn, is pretty but “dark” and has madness in her family. Another character seems to have got his political sense from his genes.
“Descended from generations victimized by the instruments of an arbitrary power, he was racially, nationally, and individually afraid of the police. It was an inherited weakness, altogether independent of his judgement, of his reason, of his experience. He was born to it. But that sentiment, which resembled the irrational horror some people have of cats, did not stand in the want of his immense contempt for the English police.”As a result, characters act from impulse not intellect, and the book is a motley collection of stupid, brutal acts and accident. There's the man who trips over while carrying a bomb and whose remains can only be collected by shovel. There's the man who misunderstands quite what's happening and throws himself from a train.
Ibid., p. 183.
It's a violent, dark world full of twisted psychologies. It's a gripping read, but for all it's psychological richness, and the linking of people's actions to their circumstance, there's a strange dismissal of terrorism as just something mad people do. These villains are feverish, stupid and incompetent. So they're not really a threat.
(It also reminded me quite a bit of David Simon's Homicide, which is full of stupid crooks doing terrible things. And which, oddly, I finished reading in Greenwich.)
Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep (1939) is a twisty thriller about a cool private eye in the style of Dashiell Hammett. I was thrilled by the sassy girls who keep falling out of their clothes, and by Philip Marlowe's easy cool, his straight-forward style as a detective matched in the unflashy prose. Also surprised by quite how much of the plot and characters made their way into The Big Lebowski.
I've also read my mate Rob Shearman's Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical, a fine collection of weird, longing tales in the manner of his award-winning Tiny Deaths. You've still just time to listen again to Mark Gatiss reading “Love Among the Lobelias”.
And speaking of fine books, the Big Finish sale has the Doctor Who – Short Trips books at £5, and the superb Re:Collections best of at £10. I've got stories in most volumes, and also edited three-and-a-half. So this is your chance to catch up on my works. Sale must end 9 January 2010.