THE SECRET AGENT (1907) by Joseph Conrad

Conrad-Secret-Agent-penguin-modern-classicsSubtitled ‘A Simple Tale’ and dedicated to HG Wells, Conrad’s novel of anarchists, spies, treachery and a terror campaign gone wrong was based on the Greenwich bombing of 1894, though it is actually set eight years before that. Recently adapted for TV and made into an under-regarded movie by Hitchcock in the 1930s, this is a story that has lost little of its relevance since its original publication.

The following is offered (a bit early) for Todd Mason’s Overlooked Film meme at Sweet Freedom; Bev’s 2016 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt; and Rich Westwood’s Crime of the Century meme, this month celebrating all things 1907 over at Past Offences.

“There could be nothing better. Such an outrage combines the greatest possible regard for humanity with the most alarming display of ferocious imbecility.”

When this book was published anarchists and revolutionaries were, according to the yellow press, hiding behind almost every sofa plotting the downfall of Western society – this was during the lead up to the First World War and the overthrow of the Tsar of Russia, a time of great instability and fear in Europe. Its inspiration apparently came following a conversation Conrad had with his friend, the great British novelist Ford Madox Ford. It tells the story of Adolf Verloc, who runs a seedy shop in London, his wife Winnie and her bother Stevie. The time is 1886 and they live in the back of the shop with Winnie and Steve’s mother. Stevie, who has some unspecified learning difficulties, discovers that Verloc is in league with anarchists, without truly understanding that this means. Verloc is also a spy in the employ of an unnamed foreign power and has been tasked with setting off a bomb at the Greenwich Observatory.

The first sense of security following on Winnie’s marriage wore off in time (for nothing lasts) …

It is very far from a straightforward genre piece, though it includes several murders, secret societies and even a police investigator, in the form of Chief Inspector Heat. But this is a story about criminality, alienation and isolation  in society and finds little that is good – making this a powerful but pretty downbeat piece (like pretty much all of Conrad’s work). But Conrad is always extraordinarily penetrating in his study of damaged, haunted people and in this works also displays a clever shaping of narrative that will appeal to mystery buffs I think – the timelines switch around at points, so that we are shown the aftermath of the bombing before we understand its full extent for the Verloc family, generating great suspense and so making the unfolding tragedy dig even deeper.

It was later updated to the (then) present day and filmed by the great Alfred Hitchcock with Oscar Homolka starring as the seditionist Verloc and Sylvia Sydney as his wife, and has just become a terrific BBC mini-series starring Toby Jones and Vicky McClure. The 1936 version – retitled Sabotage as Hitchcock had just adapted the Somerset Maugham Ashenden stories as The Secret Agent – changes the the details of the story though keeps much of the plot. Verloc is now a fairly amiable-seeming man who runs a cinema while Inspector Heat is now  undercover as a greengrocer working next to the cinema who ultimately acts as a possible romantic interest for Mrs Verloc once she realises what her husband has been up to. We begin with a power cut, one created by Verloc, which then escalates into the bomb plot.

“There is a distinct difference between “suspense” and “surprise,” and yet many pictures continually confuse the two. I’ll explain what I mean …” – Alfred Hitchcock

Sabotage is best remembered for the scene in which a bomb is ticking away on a crowded bus and for the fact that Hitchcock later claimed to have made an error here by having it go off. But this is meant to be tragic and would have been a complete betrayal of the source novel if it had been changed, though overall the tone of the movie is noticeably and unsurprisingly much lighter than that of the book. In fact, the closing part of the movie is much closer to Hitchcock and his screenwriter Charles Bennett’s earlier collaboration, the 1929 classic, Blackmail, than it is to Conrad, but it works very well on its own terms.


DVD Availability: Easily available around the world, the best edition in terms of picture quality is the Blu-ray release by Network, which also comes with a few succinct but useful extras including an overview from professor Charles Barr, the foremost authority on Hitchcock’s British films.

Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Producer: Michael Balcon
Screenplay: Charles Bennett (with additional dialogue by E. V. H. Emmett, John Hay Beith and Helen de Guerry Simpson)
Cinematography: Bernard Knowles
Art Direction: Oscar Friedrich Werndorff
Music: Louis Levy
Cast: Sylvia Sidney, Oskar Homolka, Desmond Tester, John Loder, Joyce Barbour, Matthew Boulton, William Dewhurst

I submit this review for Bev’s 2016 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt in the ‘carriage/wagon’ category:


***** (4 fedora tips out of 5)

This entry was posted in 2016 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt, Alfred Hitchcock, Crime of the Century, Joseph Conrad, London, Tuesday's Overlooked Film. Bookmark the permalink.

28 Responses to THE SECRET AGENT (1907) by Joseph Conrad

  1. Colin says:

    I always liked Hitchcock’s adaptation, even though he apparently felt he misjudged aspects of it himself – I don;t believe he did as it happens. And I was looking forward to reading the book when I got my hands on a copy years later. It is indeed more relentlessly grim than the movie but it remains a fine bit of writing and stays with you.

    • Thanks Colin – I reckon you and I are very much of like mind on this. I am always incredibly impressed by Conrad but can;t read him too often, it is just too overwhelming. With the Hitchcock movie, it is one of the last of his films that displays the lessons learned from Soviet montage and German expressionism in such naked form and is very impressive in that regard and I have always been amused by the way it starts to replicate Blackmail. And Homolka is just terrific as Verloc too!

      • Roger says:

        Conrad wrote another novel about Russian revolutionaries, Under Western Eyes.
        Graham Greene was another writer who was overwhelmed by Conrad’s style. He could only write in his own style when he didn’t read or think of Conrad.

        • Thanks Roger – I think that was the novel that followed this. I think the influence on Greene was definitely there and along with James probably his greatest inspiration.

      • Colin says:

        Yep, Conrad is definitely one to take in small doses, like a sip of a good drink.
        I agree on Homolka too, a lovely performance and a long way from some of the hammy stuff he slipped into in later years – I’m thinking of the entertaining but ripe performances in the Harry Palmer films in particular.

  2. I read Secret Agent a couple years ago! What a book! It is about so much more than the literal subject matter as you point out. I’d say it’s a precursor to later Post WW1 existentialism–with never a dull l moment. I think I wrote a review of it on Goodreads. If I can find it and it’s any good, I’ll post it here. It’s’ probably not long.

  3. Here’s what I wrote on Goodreads. Its’ a little longer than I thought but, I think it’s –ahem!–a good review!

    ver 30 years ago a co-workers recommended The Secret, but I didn’t take it up until the other night. And what a book it is.

    I had problems getting into at first. I thought Conrad was over-descriptive and it was a bit ponderous to read. (Well, to be honest, the over-description didn’t let up). But once I got used to it and settled into the novel,that over-description seemed very important. While certainly a “thriller” and an early example of the espionage/spy novel, it’s also a domestic novel, the story of the marriage of Mr. and Mrs. Verloc. Unfortunately Mr. Verloc who by day sells porn, contraceptives and junk from his shop on Brett Street, is a spy (more or less) for a foreign power. (Probably German). For years he and his little crew of anarchists (who don’t know about Verloc’s secret calling) have been writing and distributing harmless anarchist pamphlets, raising a row at political meetings, but taking no direct action. In fact, the thought to direct actions scares the bejeezus out of them. Verloc seems himself as an observer and reporter, nothing else.

    Fate takes a turn though, when Mr. Vladimir the new boss at the foreign power’s embassy demands that Verloc commit an act of terrorism “against science.”–blow up the Greenwich Observatory. It’s not that Mr. Vladimir has anything against science or astronomy, but his government is highly perturbed that the British government has too lax an attitude towards anarchists, the scourge of the continent. By blowing up the observatory–a truly sensless act– Mr. Vladimir hopes to incite a crackdown and bring England into line with the rest of imperial Europe. The reluctant terrorists finally does the deed and bumbles it with tragic consequences for himself and family. The last part of the book, stuns with Mrs. Verloc’s reaction to her husband’s side job and its results.

    Mr. and Mr.s Verloc are complex characters (as are others), ambiguous in morals and actions Mrs Verloc who has made a habit of not looking at things too deeply suddenly looks too deep into the abyss of Verloc reality.

    The Secret Agent is timely and important reading for today. Conrad, had a real handle on the machinations of state power, (though he may not have realized it). The book is contemporary, especially under the abominations of thelast two American administrations. Dick Cheney and Barack Obama probably keep it as bedsidse reading.

    • Thanks Marley, definitely a good review, though I couldn’t possibly comment on contemporary US politics 🙂 I always assumed that Verloc was supposed to be in the employ of the Russians actually, mainly because of the address of the Embassy he visits in chapter 2, which is given as ‘Chesham Square” and at the time, the real-life Russian embassy was in Chesham Place (it remained there until 1927).

  4. Margot Kinberg says:

    Thanks, as ever, Sergio, for such a thoughtful discussion. I have to admit, I’ve not read the Conrad, but the Hitchcock film does indeed carry it’s own weight. It’s interesting to me to consider the novel within the context of the times (which is, I suppose, how one has to consider anything, really). It makes a lot of sense if you think about what was really happening.

  5. Jose Ignacio says:

    Excellent review as ever, Sergio.Well done!

  6. I read and reviewed this relatively recently and as I loved the book so much, I haven’t been able to watch either adaptation! I think it’s a wonderful work, and so relevant!

  7. I have (or had) the book in a nice hardcover edition (but might have given it away when I moved) – but at any rate, your post reminded me of the Hitchcock movie with the famous boy in the bus scene? Am I remembering correctly? A very moody Hitchcock work. Admittedly I’ve always had trouble with Oscar Homolka as the leading man in anything, but maybe that’s just me.

    For whatever reason, I always get the two Hitchcock movies SABOTAGE and SABOTEUR mixed up. Not that I liked Bob Cummings any more than I did Oscar Homolka.

    • I think a lot of people get the two movies mixed up (if you go on YouTube you get the trailer for one under the title of the other) and obviously the fact that Hitch also made THE SECRET AGENT but based on Maugham doesn’t help either!!!

  8. Santosh Iyer says:

    I haven’t read the book, but I have seen the Hitchcock film and found it quite good.

    However, I couldn’t understand one thing. Where did the second bomb come from ? Only one bomb was hidden in the bird cage, and it exploded in the bus.

  9. Pingback: ‘International intrigue, mysterious murders, and headstrong damsels’: #1907book round-up | Past Offences: Classic crime, thrillers and mystery book reviews

  10. Sergio, I started reading this book on at least two occasions and left them unfinished. But now I’m inspired to go back and read it from start to finish. I didn’t know about Hitchcock’s film or the television adaptation, though I’d be inclined to look for the former.

  11. Nice intro. I should upgrade (currently I have it in that slightly random German box, “The Early Years”).

    It’s worth mentioning the Christopher Hampton version with Bob Hoskins, which I remember liking (though I haven’t seen it for an age).

    Also, I’m sure you know that Hitchcock used a bit of technical legerdemain to film the Lord’s Mayor’s Parade in Northfields.

    • Hello mate, you have discovered the blog at last … I remember quite liking the Hampton but it has been yonks. As I recall they tried to make Verloc much more likeable … Are you back home after your anniversary celebrations?

  12. Pingback: 2016 Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt | Tipping My Fedora

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