- Conrad’s Popular Fictions: Secret Histories and Sensational Novels by Andrew Glazzard
Andrew Glazzard begins his original and thought-provoking study with a charming anecdote from Joseph Conrad’s younger son, John, who recalls how his Christmas reading, a Boy’s Own Paper annual, mysteriously disappeared and then surreptitiously reappeared, open at the same page but with telltale “spills of cigarette ash” between some pages, to make the case that Conrad was an enthusiastic, perhaps indiscriminate, and sometimes covert consumer of popular fiction (1). It is a fascinating story, and the perfect way to begin, since Glazzard identifies a broad range of genre fiction, which not only helps unravel the themes and preoccupations of some of Conrad’s major and less traveled works (he focuses on The Secret Agent, Under Western Eyes, and Chance, with discussion of short fiction like “The Informer” and “An Anarchist” and the joint effort with Ford Madox Ford “The Nature of a Crime”), but also informs the cultural and literary milieu to which they belong.
Glazzard starts with a discussion of the detective genre—a refreshing look at the contexts of Conrad’s The Secret Agent, and an eye-opening glimpse of the economics of genre fiction in general. Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes sets the bar both thematically in terms of establishing such a distinctive genre fiction type of the deductive detective, but also in terms of what Glazzard notes are astonishing sums for his fiction: “£100 per thousand words [for the Strand] as well as $5000 from the American magazine Collier’s Weekly. Financially, this put Conan Doyle in a different league from almost all other Edwardian writers, including his contemporary Conrad, whose £200 for Typhoon—hardly a paltry sum in 1902—was less than a thirtieth of what Conan Doyle could have expected for a similar word-count” (27). Those remarkable figures offer their own kind of ineluctable logic about the shift of Conrad’s themes in his middle fiction, notwithstanding Glazzard’s observation of Conrad’s counterclaims in an early letter from 1897: “I have never had the ambition to write for the all-powerful masses” (CL 1:390).
The commentary on detective fiction as a broader environment of public consumption of literature in which Conrad’s The Secret Agent emerges allows Glazzard to shift away from well-trodden commentary on the anarchist background to the text, and privilege instead a discussion of figures such as Heat (as a career policeman), the Assistant Commissioner (as a specialist detective), and Verloc (as a political agent and police informant) as they figure in what [End Page 94] is notionally a detective story of political intrigue. He moves the argument amongst texts that contribute to an understanding of genre from the contemporary scene, like “Amaroff the Pole” (1905), an Addington Peace mystery written by Bertram Fletcher Robinson, and Edgar Wallace’s Four Just Men (which Glazzard has treated elsewhere). He notes that the work is far from comprehensive, and he’s right because the scale of the project he undertakes is potentially vast, and the nature of his material (much of it out of print and not much remarked upon any more) is difficult to locate. There are, of course, contemporary texts that could fit into spaces here as diverse as the mischievous comedy, The Search Party (1909), by George Birmingham, pen name of Rev. James Hannay, about bumbling Irish police searching for a missing doctor (and unbeknownst to them, dangerous anarchists) because of the insistence of a particularly angry and motivated young woman, or J. E. Preston Mud-dock’s episodes in the life of a consulting detective, Found and Fettered (1894), written under the pen name of his character, Dick Donovan, which recounts the detective’s careful pursuit and eventual regret at capturing his man, Egór Treskin (a Polish Jew) for an assassination in Russia (Muddock’s novel For God and the Czar is featured later). Importantly, however, Glazzard builds his argument and harnesses his resources so well that his study is representative and feels comprehensive...