The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale is a novel by Joseph Conrad, published in 1907. The story is set in London in 1886 and deals with Mr. Adolf Verloc and his work as a spy for an unnamed country (presumably Russia). The Secret Agent is notable for being one of Conrad's later political novels in which he moved away from his former tales of seafaring.
The novel deals broadly with anarchism, espionage and terrorism. It also deals with exploitation of the vulnerable, particularly in Verloc's relationship with his brother-in-law Stevie, who has an intellectual disability.
The Secret Agent was ranked the 46th best novel of the 20th century by Modern Library.
Because of its terrorism theme, it was noted as "one of the three works of literature most cited in the American media" two weeks after the September 11 attacks.
The novel is set in London in 1886 and follows the life of Mr. Verloc, a secret agent. Verloc is also a businessman who owns a shop which sells pornographic material, contraceptives, and bric-a-brac. He lives with his wife Winnie, his mother-in-law, and his brother-in-law, Stevie. Stevie has a mental disability, possibly autism, which causes him to be very excitable; his sister, Verloc's wife, attends to him, treating him more as a son than as a brother. Verloc's friends are a group of anarchists of which Comrade Ossipon, Michaelis, and "The Professor" are the most prominent. Although largely ineffectual as terrorists, their actions are known to the police. The group produce anarchist literature in the form of pamphlets entitled F.P., an acronym for The Future of the Proletariat.
The novel begins in Verloc's home, as he and his wife discuss the trivialities of everyday life, which introduces the reader to Verloc's family. Soon after, Verloc leaves to meet Mr. Vladimir, the new First Secretary in the embassy of a foreign country. Although a member of an anarchist cell, Verloc is also secretly employed by the Embassy as an agent provocateur. Vladimir informs Verloc that from reviewing his service history he is far from an exemplary model of a secret agent and, to redeem himself, must carry out an operation – the destruction of Greenwich Observatory by a bomb explosion. Vladimir explains that Britain's lax attitude to anarchism endangers his own country, and he reasons that an attack on 'science', which he claims is the current vogue amongst the public, will provide the necessary outrage for suppression. Verloc later meets with his friends, who discuss politics and law, and the notion of a communist revolution. Unbeknownst to the group, Stevie, Verloc's brother-in-law, overhears the conversation, which greatly disturbs him.
The novel flashes forward to after the bombing has taken place. Comrade Ossipon meets The Professor, who discusses having given explosives to Verloc. The Professor then describes the nature of the bomb which he carries in his coat at all times: it allows him to press a button which will blow him up in twenty seconds, and those nearest to him. After The Professor leaves the meeting, he stumbles into Chief Inspector Heat. Heat is a policeman who is working on the case regarding a recent explosion at Greenwich, where one man was killed. Heat informs The Professor that he is not a suspect in the case, but that he is being monitored due to his terrorist inclinations and anarchist background. Knowing that Michaelis has recently moved to the countryside to write a book, the Chief Inspector informs the Assistant Commissioner that he has a contact, Verloc, who may be able to assist in the case. The Assistant Commissioner shares some of the same high society acquaintances with Michaelis and is chiefly motivated by finding the extent of Michaelis's involvement in order to assess any possible embarrassment to his connections. He later speaks to his superior, Sir Ethelred, about his intentions to solve the case alone, rather than rely on the effort of Chief Inspector Heat.
The novel then flashes back to before the explosion, taking the perspective of Winnie Verloc and her mother. At home, Mrs. Verloc's mother informs the family that she wishes to move out of the house. Mrs. Verloc's mother and Stevie use a hansom which is driven by a man with a hook in the place of his hand. The journey greatly upsets Stevie, as the driver's tales of hardship coupled with his menacing hook scare him to the point where Mrs. Verloc must calm him down. On Verloc's return from a business trip to the continent, his wife tells him of the high regard that Stevie has for him and she implores her husband to spend more time with Stevie. Verloc eventually agrees to go for a walk with Stevie. After this walk, Mrs. Verloc notes that her husband's relationship with her brother has improved. Verloc then tells his wife that he has taken Stevie to go and visit Michaelis, and that Stevie would stay with him in the countryside for a few days.
As Verloc is talking to his wife about the possibility of emigrating to the continent, he is paid a visit by the Assistant Commissioner. Shortly thereafter, Chief Inspector Heat arrives to speak with Verloc, without knowing that the Assistant Commissioner had left with Verloc earlier that evening. The Chief Inspector tells Mrs. Verloc that he had recovered an overcoat at the scene of the bombing which had the shop's address written on a label. Mrs. Verloc confirms that it was Stevie's overcoat, and that she had written the address. On Verloc's return, he realises that his wife knows her brother has been killed by Verloc's bomb, and confesses what truly happened. A stunned Mrs. Verloc, in her anguish, then fatally stabs her husband.
After the murder, Mrs. Verloc flees her home, where she chances upon Comrade Ossipon, and begs him to help her. Ossipon assists her while confessing romantic feelings but secretly with a view to possess Mr Verloc's bank account savings. They plan to run away and he aids her in taking a boat to the continent. However, her instability and the revelation of Mr. Verloc's murder increasingly worry him, and he abandons her, taking Mr Verloc's savings with him. He later discovers in a newspaper that a woman had disappeared, leaving behind her a wedding ring, before drowning herself in the English Channel.
Mr. Adolf Verloc: a secret agent who owns a shop in the Soho region of London. His primary characteristic, as described by Conrad, is indolence. He has been employed by an unnamed embassy to spy on revolutionary groups, which then orders him to instigate a terrorist act against the Greenwich Observatory. Their belief is that the resulting public outrage will force the English government to act more forcibly against emigre socialist and anarchist activists. He is part of an anarchist organisation that creates pamphlets under the heading The Future of the Proletariat. He is married to Winnie, and lives with his wife, his mother-in-law, and his brother-in-law, Stevie.
Mrs. Winnie Verloc: Verloc's wife. She cares deeply for her brother Stevie, who has the mental age of a young child. Of working class origins, her father was the owner of a pub. She is younger than her husband and married him not for love but to provide a home for her mother and brother. A loyal wife, she is deeply disturbed upon learning of the death of her brother due to her husband's plotting, and kills him with a knife in the heart. She dies, presumably by drowning herself to avoid the gallows.
Stevie: Winnie's brother has the mental age of a young child and is very sensitive and is disturbed by notions of violence or hardship. His sister cares for him, and Stevie passes most of his time drawing numerous circles on pieces of paper. Verloc, exploiting both Stevie's childlike simplicity and outrage at suffering, employs him to carry out the terrorist attack on the Greenwich Observatory. However, Stevie stumbles and the bomb explodes prematurely.
Mrs. Verloc's mother: Old and infirm, Mrs Verloc's mother leaves the household to live in an almshouse, believing that two disabled people (herself and Stevie) are too much for Mr Verloc's generosity. The widow of a publican, she spent most of her life working hard in her husband's pub and believed Mr Verloc to be a gentleman because she thought he resembled patrons of business houses (pubs with higher prices, consequently frequented by higher classes).
Chief Inspector Heat: a policeman who is dealing with the explosion at Greenwich. An astute and practical man who uses a clue found at the scene of the crime to trace events back to Verloc's home. Although he informs his superior what he is planning to do with regards to the case, he is initially not aware that the Assistant Commissioner is acting without his knowledge. Heat knew Verloc before the bombing as Verloc had supplied information to Heat through the Embassy. Heat has contempt for anarchists who he regards as amateurs, as opposed to burglars who he regards as professionals.
The Assistant Commissioner: of a higher rank than the Chief Inspector, he uses the knowledge gained from Heat to pursue matters personally, for reasons of his own. The Assistant Commissioner is married to a lady with influential connections. He informs his superior, Sir Ethelred, of his intentions, and tracks down Verloc before Heat can.
Sir Ethelred: a Secretary of State (Home Secretary) to whom the Assistant Commissioner reports. At the time of the bombing he is busy trying to pass a bill regarding the nationalisation of fisheries through the House of Commons against great opposition. He is briefed by the Assistant Commissioner throughout the novel who he often admonishes to not go into detail.
Mr. Vladimir: the First Secretary of an embassy of an unnamed country. Though his name might suggest that this is the Russian embassy, the name of the previous first secretary, Baron Stott-Wartenheim, is Germanic, as is that of Privy Councillor Wurmt, another official of this embassy. There is also the suggestion that Vladimir is not from Europe but Central Asia. Vladimir thinks that the English police are far too soft on émigré socialist and anarchists, which are a real problem in his home country. He orders Verloc to instigate a terrorist act, hoping that the resulting public outrage will force the English government to adopt repressive measures.
Michaelis: a member of Verloc's group, and another anarchist. The most philosophical member of the group, his theories resemble those of Peter Kropotkin while some of his other attributes resemble Mikhail Bakunin.
Comrade Alexander Ossipon: an ex-medical student, anarchist and member of Verloc's group. He survives on the savings of various women he seduces, mostly working class. He is influenced by the theories on degeneracy of Cesare Lombroso. After Mr Verloc's murder he initially helps, but afterwards abandons Winnie leaving her penniless on a train. He is later disturbed when he reads of her suicide and wonders if he will be able to seduce a woman again.
Karl Yundt: a member of Verloc's group, commonly referred to as an "old terrorist".
The Professor: another anarchist, who specialises in explosives. The Professor carries a flask of explosives in his coat that can be detonated within twenty seconds of him squeezing an india rubber ball in his pocket. The police know this and keep their distance. The most nihilistic member of the anarchists, the Professor feels oppressed and disgusted by the rest of humanity and has particular contempt for the weak. He dreams of a world where the weak are freely exterminated so that the strong can thrive. He supplies to Mr Verloc the bomb that kills Stevie.
Greenwich Bombing of 1894
Conrad's character, Stevie, is based on the French anarchist, Martial Bourdin, who died gruesomely in Greenwich Park when the explosives he carried prematurely detonated. Bourdin's motives remain a mystery as does his intended target, which may have been the Greenwich Observatory. In the 1920 Author's Note to the novel, Conrad recalls a discussion with Ford Madox Ford about the bombing:
[...] we recalled the already old story of the attempt to blow up the Greenwich Observatory; a blood-stained inanity of so fatuous a kind that it was impossible to fathom its origin by any reasonable or even unreasonable process of thought. For perverse unreason has its own logical processes. But that outrage could not be laid hold of mentally in any sort of way, so that one remained faced by the fact of a man blown to bits for nothing even most remotely resembling an idea, anarchistic or other. As to the outer wall of the Observatory it did not show as much as the faintest crack. I pointed all this out to my friend who remained silent for a while and then remarked in his characteristically casual and omniscient manner: "Oh, that fellow was half an idiot. His sister committed suicide afterwards." These were absolutely the only words that passed between us [...].
Terrorism and anarchism
Terrorism and anarchism are intrinsic aspects of the novel, and are central to the plot. Verloc is employed by an agency which requires him to orchestrate terrorist activities, and several of the characters deal with terrorism in some way: Verloc's friends are all interested in an anarchistic political revolution, and the police are investigating anarchist motives behind the bombing of Greenwich.
The novel was written at a time when terrorist activity was increasing. There had been numerous dynamite attacks in both Europe and the US, as well as several assassinations of heads of state. Conrad also drew upon two persons specifically: Mikhail Bakunin and Prince Peter Kropotkin. Conrad used these two men in his "portrayal of the novel's anarchists". However, according to Conrad's Author's Note, only one character was a true anarchist: Winnie Verloc. In The Secret Agent, she is "the only character who performs a serious act of violence against another", despite the F.P.'s intentions of radical change, and The Professor's inclination to keep a bomb on his person.
Critics have analysed the role of terrorism in the novel. Patrick Reilly calls the novel "a terrorist text as well as a text about terrorism" due to Conrad's manipulation of chronology to allow the reader to comprehend the outcome of the bombing before the characters, thereby corrupting the traditional conception of time. The morality which is implicit in these acts of terrorism has also been explored: is Verloc evil because his negligence leads to the death of his brother-in-law? Although Winnie evidently thinks so, the issue is not clear, as Verloc attempted to carry out the act with no fatalities, and as simply as possible to retain his job, and care for his family.
The role of politics is paramount in the novel, as the main character, Verloc, works for a quasi-political organisation. The role of politics is seen in several places in the novel: in the revolutionary ideas of the F.P.; in the characters' personal beliefs; and in Verloc's own private life. Conrad's depiction of anarchism has an "enduring political relevance", although the focus is now largely concerned with the terrorist aspects that this entails. The discussions of the F.P. are expositions on the role of anarchism and its relation to contemporary life. The threat of these thoughts is evident, as Chief Inspector Heat knows F.P. members because of their anarchist views. Moreover, Michaelis' actions are monitored by the police to such an extent that he must notify the police station that he is moving to the country.
The plot to destroy Greenwich is in itself anarchistic. Vladimir asserts that the bombing "must be purely destructive" and that the anarchists who will be implicated as the architects of the explosion "should make it clear that [they] are perfectly determined to make a clean sweep of the whole social creation." However, the political form of anarchism is ultimately controlled in the novel: the only supposed politically motivated act is orchestrated by a secret government agency.
Some critics, such as Fredrick R. Karl, think that the main political phenomenon in this novel is the modern age, as symbolised by the teeming, pullulating foggy streets of London (most notably in the cab ride taken by Winnie and Stevie Verloc). This modern age distorts everything, including politics (Verloc is motivated by the need to keep his remunerative position, the Professor to some extent by pride), the family (symbolised by the Verloc household, in which all roles are distorted, with the husband being like a father to the wife, who is like a mother to her brother), even the human body (Michaelis and Verloc are hugely obese, while the Professor and Yundt are preternaturally thin). This extended metaphor, using London as a center of darkness much like Kurtz's headquarters in Heart of Darkness, presents "a dark vision of moral and spiritual inertia" and a condemnation of those who, like Mrs Verloc, think it a mistake to think too deeply.
Literary significance and reception
Initially, the novel fared poorly in both the United Kingdom and the United States, selling only 3,076 copies between 1907 and 1914. The book fared slightly better in Britain, yet no more than 6,500 copies were pressed before 1914. Although sales increased after 1914, the novel never sold more than "modestly" throughout Conrad's lifetime. The novel was released to favourable reviews, with most agreeing with the view of The Times Literary Supplement, that the novel "increase[d] Mr. Conrad's reputation, already of the highest." However, there were detractors, who largely disagreed with the novel's "unpleasant characters and subject". Country Life magazine called the story "indecent", whilst also criticising Conrad's "often dense and elliptical style".
In modern times, The Secret Agent is considered to be one of Conrad's finest novels. The Independent calls it "[o]ne of Conrad's great city novels" whilst The New York Times insists that it is "the most brilliant novelistic study of terrorism". It is considered to be a "prescient" view of the 20th century, foretelling the rise of terrorism, anarchism, and the augmentation of secret societies, such as MI5. The novel is on reading lists for both secondary school pupils and university undergraduates.
Influence on Ted Kaczynski
The Secret Agent is said to have influenced the Unabomber—Ted Kaczynski. Kaczynski was a great fan of the novel and as an adolescent kept a copy at his bedside. He identified strongly with the character of "the Professor" and advised his family to read The Secret Agent to understand the character with whom he felt such an affinity. David Foster, the literary attributionist who assisted the FBI, said that Kaczynski "seem[ed] to have felt that his family could not understand him without reading Conrad."
Kaczynski's idolisation of the character was due to the traits that they shared: disaffection, hostility toward the world, and being an aspiring anarchist. However, it did not stop at mere idolisation. Kaczynski used "The Professor" as a source of inspiration, and "fabricated sixteen exploding packages that detonated in various locations". After his capture, Kaczynski revealed to FBI agents that he had read the novel a dozen times, and had sometimes used "Conrad" as an alias. It was discovered that Kaczynski had used various formulations of Conrad's name – Conrad, Konrad, and Korzeniowski, Conrad's original surname – to sign himself into several hotels in Sacramento. As in his youth, Kaczynski retained a copy of The Secret Agent, and kept it with him whilst living as a recluse in a hut in Montana.
In 1923 Conrad adapted the novel as a three-act drama of the same title.
The novel formed the basis for Alfred Hitchcock's 1936 film, Sabotage, though many changes to the plot and characters were made. (Another 1936 Hitchcock film, Secret Agent, was based on short stories by W. Somerset Maugham.)
A television adaptation of The Secret Agent was made in 1992, a three part BBC miniseries, with David Suchet as Verloc, and Cheryl Campbell as his wife Winnie. Verloc was transformed into a much more sympathetic character for this work, in which he deeply grieved for Stevie's death.
A 1996 film The Secret Agent, more faithful to the original novel, starred Bob Hoskins, Patricia Arquette and Gérard Depardieu.
On 23 May 2006 the Feldkirch Festival premiered an opera based on the novel. Simon Wills wrote the music and libretto and Peter Kajlinger sang the main character, Mr.Verloc.
David Napthine dramatised a radio adaptation for BBC Radio 4 in 2006, starring Ron Cook and Robert Glenister.
A play adaptation of the novel was produced in 2007 by Alexander Gelman, the Artistic Director of Organic Theater Company in Chicago, IL. The play's premiere took place on 18 April 2008.
In January 2008, the play was staged in Italian by the Teatro Stabile di Genova of Genoa, under the direction of Marco Sciaccaluga.
The Center for Contemporary Opera in New York presented the world premiere of a new opera by Michael Dellaira (music) and J D McClatchy (libretto), at the Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College on 18 March 2011. Amy Burton sang Winnie, Scott Bearden sang Verloc. It had its European premiere at the Armel International Opera Festival on 14 October 2011 in Szeged, Hungary, where the opera was broadcast live on the Arte Channel, and named the festival's "Laureat." Adrienn Miksch sang Winnie, Nicolas Rigas sang Verloc. The same production was reprised on 18 April 2012 at L'Opéra-Théâtre d'Avignon in Avignon, France. All productions were directed by Sam Helfrich and conducted by Sara Jobin.
The Capitol City Opera Company of Atlanta presented the world premiere of The Secret Agent, an opera in two acts with music by Curtis Bryant and libretto by Allen Reichman at the Conant Center for Performing Arts at Oglethorpe University on 15 March 2013. Directed by Michael Nutter, the production featured soprano Elizabeth Claxton in the role of Winnie, baritone Wade Thomas as Verloc and tenor Timothy Miller as Ossipon. In this operatic treatment, originally completed in 2007 under the title The Anarchist, Winnie, discovering that she has been abandoned on the train, sings a final aria "Fooled Again." Bryant quotes one measure from Puccini's Tosca before Winnie leaps into the path of an oncoming train, ending her life and the opera.
In 2014, the BBC ordered a three-part television series based on the novel. It was filmed from October-December 2015 and will air in July 2016.[ Toby Jones, Vicky McClure and Stephen Graham will star.
The Secret Agent: a timely BBC adaptation of Joseph Conrad's novel
As Conrad’s 1907 novel screens, Mark Lawson hails a prescient masterpiece that has shaped depictions of terrorism and espionage
Saturday 16 July 2016 12.00 BST
As they watch a suicide bomber with explosives strapped to his chest walk through a London that feels on the brink of political collapse, some viewers may suspect that the new TV adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novel, The Secret Agent, has been tweaked to maximise contemporary relevance.
Those elements, though, are in the original, making the BBC1 three-parter – with Toby Jones as Verloc, an anarchist who becomes involved in a plot to blow up Greenwich Observatory – the latest example of Conrad’s story becoming a prism through which modern political insecurities are viewed. It is a tactic that goes back to 1936, when Alfred Hitchcock filmed the story, under the title Sabotage, as a reflection of the developing political pressures in Europe.
Ever since, the years that sees an adaptation of The Secret Agent is unlikely to have been a good one for democracy. The BBC put the book on the screen twice in quick succession, in 1967 and 1975, straddling an era of international instability, marked by the rise of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland, student riots in France and assassinations in the US. There had even been, in the early 70s, a period of actual anarchist terrorism in England, with bombings carried out by the Angry Brigade.
When the BBC again filmed the novel in 1992, with David Suchet as Verloc, The Secret Agent again felt uncannily suited to a period of legislative turmoil and fear of terrorism: four years previously Pan Am flight 103 had exploded over Lockerbie in Scotland in a bombing attributed to Libya, and the series aired during a spell in which governments were tumbling around the world, including those of Margaret Thatcher and the first President Bush, who had been undermined by a populist drive against the political establishment led by a billionaire political outsider, Ross Perot.
David Suchet as Verloc and Peter Capaldi as Vladimir in the 1992 BBC adaptation. Photograph: BBC
The strong resonance of the novel in that epoch is shown by the fact that a movie version, written and directed by Christopher Hampton, followed in 1996, its release coming spookily soon after the apprehension by the FBI, of Ted Kaczynski, an American domestic anarchist known as the “Unabomber”. A university professor, like the character in The Secret Agent with the explosive coat, Kaczynski had used the pseudonym “Conrad”, and appears to have been an admirer of the novel.
Although no new screen version followed the 9/11 attacks, the book was regularly referenced in journalistic commentary on the atrocities. So, given this history, it is little surprise that The Secret Agent should turn up on British television in 2016, soon after terrorist attacks in France and Belgium, and in a summer when Donald Trump has become the most successful non-mainstream presidential candidate since Perot.
Conrad’s book still seems to be the fiction that best expresses western society’s concerns about terrorism and popular revolution. And, looking at the fictions on these subjects that have appeared in the subsequent 109 years, the story of Verloc has also influenced each intermittent wave of novels about terrorism, as writers responded to the threats from the IRA, Palestinian terror groups, al-Qaida and now Islamic State.
The fuse on this line of writing was lit in the first decade of the 20th century not only by The Secret Agent but by another novel about anarchists that appeared one year later in 1908: The Man Who Was Thursday by GK Chesterton. Although Conrad’s Verloc inhabited an earlier London – the Greenwich bomb plot takes place in 1886, inspired by a real incident of that time – the books draw on the same subculture of political dissent. In Chesterton’s work, a squad of anti-anarchist police attempts to infiltrate the European Council of Anarchism, whose members maintain anonymity, in a strategy similar to the use of colour-coded aliases by the robbers in Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, by each taking the name of a day of the week.
Another overlap between The Secret Agent and The Man Who Was Thursday is a contrast between the implications of the stories and the tone in which they are told, a distance signalled by subtitles. Conrad calls his novel “A Simple Tale”, and adopts a satirical and moralising attitude towards his characters: Verloc runs a Soho sex shop, while the anarchists with whom he consorts include one whose diet consists only of raw carrots. Categorised by Chesterton as “A Nightmare”, The Man Who Was Thursday develops into a farce of subterfuge, in which almost no one is who they claim to be or not to be. And, if Conrad saw in anarchism a chance to dramatise the worst aspects of human behaviour, Chesterton, an optimist and devout Roman Catholic believer, attempts a moral about the possibility of betterment.
For obvious historical reasons, the anarchist thriller soon enough gave way in Britain to the genre of war stories, first written by those who had served in the 1914-18 conflict, such as AP Herbert’s The Secret Battle (1919), Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End (1924-28) and W Somerset Maugham’s Ashenden: The British Agent (1928). Veterans of the second world war subsequently reported back in another wave of conflict fiction, including Nicholas Monsarrat’s The Cruel Sea (1951) and two American works from the same year: From Here To Eternity by James Jones and Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny.
Naval war novels, such as Montsarrat’s and Wouk’s, are inevitably influenced by Conrad stories based on his career as a merchant seaman (Typhoon, Heart of Darkness), but The Secret Agent also strongly informs war literature.
When Alfred Hitchcock, in 1936, based a film on Maugham’s Ashenden, he gave it the Conradian title Secret Agent, even though he was almost simultaneously engaged in the project to turn The Secret Agent into the film that became Sabotage. But this confusion is illuminating, as there is a line of inheritance from anarchist to war literature, and, indeed, beyond that, to the next fictional growth area: espionage. The leaders in that field, Graham Greene and John le Carré, had recognisably read Conrad and Maugham.
Trails from The Secret Agent and espionage novels can then be traced into the next big burst of fiction about domestic terrorism following the outbreak of the Irish Troubles. The footprints of anarchist fiction can be found here too, as the Irish republican leader Michael Collins, a historical inspiration to the IRA, was a declared admirer of The Man Who Was Thursday, claiming to have learned from it that the best way of avoiding being hunted was not to seem to be hiding anything.
Troubles fiction began as early as 1973, when Jack Higgins (the pen name of Harry Patterson) published A Prayer for the Dying, in which the protagonist, Martin Fallon, is a former IRA killer trying to atone for his past. Higgins has also written a sequence of 21 novels since Eye of the Storm (1992), featuring Sean Dillon, a former IRA hitman.
The most enduringly praised Troubles thriller, though, has been Gerald Seymour’s Harry’s Game (1975), in which a British agent goes undercover to hunt the republican assassin of a British politician. Seymour had reported from Belfast for ITN and established the habit of fiction about Northern Irish terrorism initially being written by outsiders.
The American Paul Theroux drew on his experience of living in London during the IRA bombing campaign for The Family Arsenal (1976), based around a bombing cell in south London. Another literary immigrant, the Iranian-Rhodesian Doris Lessing, wrote The Good Terrorist (1985), a novel that seems to hold deliberate echoes of The Secret Agent, as Alice, a middle-class communist, becomes involved with a cabal of London anarchists who, inspired by the IRA, transmute into terrorists. For understandable reasons of getting enough of the subject at home – and the genuine physical risk to publishers and writers who were perceived to be taking sides – Northern Irish writers have only fully tackled the topic in books written since the establishment of the peace process, by crime writers including Adrian McKinty, Brian McGilloway and Stuart Neville.
The eruption of Catholic-Protestant violence in Northern Ireland was paralleled by increasing Israeli-Arab tension – from the six-day war of 1967 to the killing of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972 and the Yom Kippur war of 1973 – and there is a porous border between the literatures of Irish and Middle Eastern terrorism. Seymour followed Harry’s Game with The Glory Boys (1976), in which an Arab terrorist teams up with an IRA assassin to attempt to kill an Israeli scientist who is visiting London. Thomas Harris, later to be fabled as the creator of Hannibal Lecter, has acknowledged that watching the Olympics massacre on television inspired him to write the thriller Black Sunday (1975), in which terrorists from the Palestinian Black September movement conspire to detonate a TV airship filled with explosives over the stadium hosting the American football Super Bowl.
Whereas Davidson’s and Harris’s books favour the Israeli perspective, a general realignment in western attitudes towards the Middle East was signalled by Le Carré’s The Little Drummer Girl (1983), in which, extending the moral ambiguity that the writer had brought to his cold war spy stories, a woman working as a double agent for Israeli and Palestinian security forces is destroyed by her conflict of loyalties.
The next swell of novels about bombers featured the Islamist extremism that began with al-Qaida and now continues via the various iterations of Isis. What is striking about this subgenre of terrorism fiction, though, is the extent to which it anticipated rather than retro-dramatised events. The concept of the suicide plane bomb had been a pivotal plotline in The Better Angels, a 1979 thriller by Charles McCarry, which also featured Ibn Awad, a radical Islamist warlord who seems a shivery premonition of Osama bin Laden. As McCarry is a former CIA agent, some aspects of his storytelling may have been informed by agency wargaming.
Tom Clancy, an author who had less formal but friendly links with the security establishment, also spookily previewed 9/11 in Debt of Honour (1994), in which a 747 is flown deliberately into the Capitol building, removing most of the United States government. (Read now, Harris’s Black Sunday also feels prophetic in having imagined, more than a quarter of a century before it occurred, terrorist mass murder from the skies.)
Post-9/11, the threat coming from a state of mind rather than a single nation state became a common trope in novels, including McCarry’s Old Boys (2004), in which Ibn Awad reappears, although now seeming not the conception of Bin Laden but an inflection.
One of Bin Laden’s favoured weapons was the “clean skin” or “homegrown” terrorist, radicalised and turned against their own country. This concept is explored from very different national and literary angles in At Risk (2005), written by former MI5 boss Stella Rimington; John Updike’s novel Terrorist (2006); and Chris Cleave’s Incendiary (2005), which, with grim serendipity, was published on the day of the 7/7 attacks on the London transport system.
As state-of-mind bombings have graduated to the attempt to impose an Islamic state, mass attacks on cities have become a narrative commonplace in fiction: unlikely to sell in large quantities at transport hubs are Andy McNab’s Red Notice (2012), in which 400 passengers are taken hostage in the Channel tunnel, and Crisis, in which the UK capital is threatened with unparalleled massacre, by Frank Gardner, the BBC’s security correspondent, who is one of the few victims of terrorism (shot and seriously injured by al-Qaida sympathisers in 2004) to have written in the genre.
The characters in these novels will hope that the terrorists they are up against prove to be as incompetent or eccentric as Conrad’s Verloc and the suicide-vested professor in the book that started the form.
• The Secret Agent starts on 17 July on BBC1 at 9pm.