In The Secret Agent (1907) a triangle of conspiracy is built, then destroyed, by the self-interest of its participants. Mr. Verloc, employed by a foreign embassy to incriminate an anarchist group, instead destroys his family, his illusions, and his own life in a terrorist act gone utterly wrong. Conrad’s ironic and troubling novel exposes political extremism and the strength-and vanity-of illusion.
Mr Verloc, going out in the morning, left his shop nominally in charge of his brother–in–law. It could be done, because there was very little business at any time, and practically none at all before the evening. Mr Verloc cared but little about his ostensible business. And, moreover, his wife was in charge of his brother–in–law.
The shop was small, and so was the house. It was one of those grimy brick houses which existed in large quantities before the era of reconstruction dawned upon London. The shop was a square box of a place, with the front glazed in small panes. In the daytime the door remained closed; in the evening it stood discreetly but suspiciously ajar.
The window contained photographs of more or less undressed dancing girls; nondescript packages in wrappers like patent medicines; closed yellow paper envelopes, very flimsy, and marked two–and–six in heavy black figures; a few numbers of ancient French comic publications hung across a string as if to dry; a dingy blue china bowl, a casket of black wood, bottles of marking ink, and rubber stamps; a few books, with titles hinting at impropriety; a few apparently old copies of obscure newspapers, badly printed, with titles like The Torch, The Gong—rousing titles. And the two gas jets inside the panes were always turned low, either for economy’s sake or for the sake of the customers.