Our current Tale for Our Time doesn't really need any promotional tie-ins, and certainly not anything so drearily redundant as yet another terrorist attack in London. But the Islamic State conveniently arranged for one of their foot-soldiers to send a huge fireball up a crowded District Line train this morning, and the parallels with Joseph Conrad's protean tale of urban terrorism are striking. In 1886 it was South-East London - Greenwich Park; today it was South-West London - Parsons Green (where I lived briefly, many years ago, on Wardo Avenue). But in both cases the bomb goes off prematurely, downgrading an atrocity to a mere incident. And the great city shrugs, and moves on. Much of the landscape in Conrad's novel is familiar today: the overground railway stations through which the terrorists pass, the parks and public houses. But today's London is a city after the neutron bomb: the buildings still stand, but the population has undergone wholesale demographic replacement. Which makes the terrorists rather harder to keep track of than they were in Chief Inspector Heat's day.
So here is the fifteenth episode of The Secret Agent. In tonight's installment, Winnie Verloc tries to come to terms with what her husband has wrought:
Mr Verloc never meant Stevie to perish with such abrupt violence. He did not mean him to perish at all. Stevie dead was a much greater nuisance than ever he had been when alive. Mr Verloc had augured a favourable issue to his enterprise, basing himself not on Stevie's intelligence, which sometimes plays queer tricks with a man, but on the blind docility and on the blind devotion of the boy. Though not much of a psychologist, Mr Verloc had gauged the depth of Stevie's fanaticism. He dared cherish the hope of Stevie walking away from the walls of the Observatory as he had been instructed to do, taking the way shown to him several times previously, and rejoining his brother-in-law, the wise and good Mr Verloc, outside the precincts of the park. Fifteen minutes ought to have been enough for the veriest fool to deposit the engine and walk away. And the Professor had guaranteed more than fifteen minutes. But Stevie had stumbled within five minutes of being left to himself. And Mr Verloc was shaken morally to pieces. He had foreseen everything but that.
If you've yet to hear any of our Tales for Our Time, you can do so by joining The Mark Steyn Club. For more details, see here - and don't forget our new Gift Membership. Please join me tomorrow evening for Part 16 - and before that, on Saturday morning, for another video edition of Mark's Mailbox.