Conrad’s Popular Fictions: Secret Histories and Sensational by Andrew Glazzard

By Andrew Glazzard

Detectives, police informers, spies and spymasters, anarchists and terrorists, swindlers: those are the nature kinds explored in Conrad's well known Fictions. This publication exhibits how Joseph Conrad experimented creatively with genres comparable to crime and espionage fiction, and sheds new gentle at the resources and contexts of his paintings.

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The Daily Mail’s anonymous reviewer predicted that those readers expecting a detective story would be disappointed: ‘It is not interested in solving police secrets; they are bare from the first. There is never any mystery’ (CR2 346–7). Lloyd Williams, choosing the novel as the Weekly Sun’s ‘book of the week’ under the heading ‘A Real Detective Story’, elaborated on its relationship to popular equivalents: ‘Mr Conrad’s detective story must not be confused with the popularly accepted article. Indeed, it is possible that the people who gobble up the works of Sir Conan Doyle and Mr William Le Queux may find “The Secret Agent” too heavy for their digestive organs, for the only mystery in Mr Conrad’s book is the mystery of life itself; his detective is a glorified policeman’ (CR2 360).

His aptitude for this work is the product of natural talent, one of the defining attributes of the successful amateur in any field: he is a ‘born detective’ with ‘considerable gifts for the detection of incriminating truth’ which, to begin with, is limited by his management role so that he can only Detectives and Professionalism in The Secret Agent 39 exercise it ‘upon his own subordinates’. Later, however, he gets his opportunity to fulfil the most important function of the specialist detective: saving innocents from suspicion, prosecution and even execution.

But his most important ethical failing is his attitude to guilt and innocence. For all Heat’s incomprehension at the scene, the label is the clue that will lead to the swift unravelling of the Greenwich mystery. His decision to withhold the evidence from the Assistant Commissioner is, therefore, an ethical sin of enormous magnitude. This is compounded by Heat’s self-serving motives, and by his subsequent actions: to protect his informer Verloc, whom he is managing privately so as to garner credit and escape obstruction and oversight from his superiors, he determines to pin the blame for the bombing onto Michaelis, whom he believes to be a menace to society who should never have been released from prison.

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