An incompetent secret agent in late-19th century London finds that he can no longer coast along in his espionage duties and gets caught up in an ill-conceived anarchist plot to blow up the Greenwich Observatory. Adolf Verloc lives a double life. On the surface, he is an odd, lazy man who owns a small shop that sells various pornographic and sexual items. But this is merely a front for his real job as an odd, lazy secret agent employed by the Russian embassy. His duties are chiefly to act as an embedded double agent with anarchist cells operating around London. The anarchist cells are about as lazily incompetent as Verloc and do little more than publish pamphlets about the coming revolution. One of the members, the Professor, spends his days walking around with bombs strapped to his body, ready (but apparently unwilling) to blow himself up at a moment's notice.
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We first meet Verloc in the home he shares with his wife, Winnie, and Winnie's mentally disabled brother, Stevie. But this quiet domesticity is ruptured when Verloc is called to his "employer", Mr. Vladimir, at the embassy. Vladimir is not happy with Verloc's subpar work disrupting the anarchists' activity. The Russians fear that if the anarchists are left to their own devices, they will eventually spread and become a greater threat. Vladimir lets him know that he is going to have to step up his game and invoke a proper response from the British. To this end, he demands that Verloc incite the local cell to blow up the Greenwich Observatory, reasoning that the British will have to respond to so public an attack. With little choice, Verloc meets with his fellow anarchists and gets them to agree to the plot.
After this, the novel jumps around a bit. We learn that the bombing has taken place, but apparently it was not the devastating attack Verloc, and Vladimir, had hoped for. The police get involved, though their own bungling leads to few leads. Meanwhile, Verloc tells his wife, Winnie, that he has sent Stevie to the countryside for awhile and secretly makes plans to leave for Europe as he fears that eventually the police might figure things out.
His fears are correct, since at last the police discover their first real clue at the scene of the bombing: an overcoat with the address of Verloc's shop written on the tag. The chief investigator takes the coat to the shop and Winnie recognizes it as Stevie's coat. Verloc arrives after the police leave. When Winnie confronts him about the coat, he confesses that he manipulated Stevie to carry out the bombing. Stevie, it turns out, was not the best choice as bomber and only succeeded in blowing himself up.
At this revelation, Winnie loses her mind. In a frenzy, she attacks Verloc with a kitchen knife and kills him. With her brother and husband now dead, Winnie flees with one of the anarchist members, Comrade Ossipon, who had long harbored an infatuation with her. But it's soon clear to him that she is dangerously unstable and he leaves her on a boat crossing the English Channel. The novel ends with Ossipon learning that Winnie drowns in the escape attempt.
Best part of story, including ending:
Considering the subject matter and tragic outcome for all the major characters, this book, with all its grotesque characters and absurd send-ups of high-level intelligence machinations, is a surprisingly fun read.
Best scene in story:
The scene where we first meet Verloc's fellow anarchists is particularly good. The best of them is clearly The Professor, with his constant, self-satisfied explanations of his ridiculous bomb apparatus; everybody knows he wears the bombs, and nobody seems too concerned about it.
Opinion about the main character:
Written long before we've been flooded with smooth, hyper-competent James Bond rip-offs, Verloc -- the reluctant spy too lazy to be of any real danger to anyone -- is a welcome alternative.