1. What is it?
Conspiracy is the creation of a secret plan, usually by a group against an authority or power.
It is often used in thrillers as a plot device, with the hero having to discover and thwart the plot.
2. How is it made?
|An initial event is not easily explained.||Mysterious characters make secret plans in a group.|
|Evil or dramatic events caused by an unknown cause.||A slow build up of threat from a secret source.|
|The arrival of a morally ambiguous or disingenuous character with wealth, power, and secrets.||Clues telling the reader about a mystery.|
|A mastermind or ring-leader leading the conspirators.||A reveal in which the hero learns the conspiracy.|
3. Examples in literature
The Thirty-Nine Steps
Know Your Book
by John Buchan
Title: The Thirty-Nine Steps
Author: John Buchan (1875-1940)
Genre: Fiction; novel; thriller
Plot: Franklin Scudder, a spy, tells his neighbour Hannay that there is an anarchist plot to assassinate the Greek premier in London, and that Scudder’s life is in danger. When Scudder is killed soon after, Hannay decides to take the victim’s notebook and investigate. The police, meanwhile, believe that Hanney is Scudder’s killer. A chase begins in which Hannay must get to the truth before the police and criminals get to him.
Setting: London; Galloway; 1914
Characters: Richard Hannay (narrator); Franklin Scudder; Karolides
Excerpt from Chapter 1 ‘The Man Who Died’:
He had another drink, and I mixed it for him myself, for I was getting interested in the beggar.
‘They can’t get him in his own land, for he has a bodyguard of Epirotes that would skin their grandmothers. But on the 15th day of June he is coming to this city. The British Foreign Office has taken to having International tea-parties, and the biggest of them is due on that date. Now Karolides is reckoned the principal guest, and if my friends have their way he will never return to his admiring countrymen.’
‘That’s simple enough, anyhow,’ I said. ‘You can warn him and keep him at home.’
‘And play their game?’ he asked sharply. ‘If he does not come they win, for he’s the only man that can straighten out the tangle. And if his Government are warned he won’t come, for he does not know how big the stakes will be on June the 15th.’
‘What about the British Government?’ I said.
‘They’re not going to let their guests be murdered. Tip them the wink, and they’ll take extra precautions.’
‘No good. They might stuff your city with plain-clothes detectives and double the police and Constantine would still be a doomed man. My friends are not playing this game for candy. They want a big occasion for the taking off, with the eyes of all Europe on it. He’ll be murdered by an Austrian, and there’ll be plenty of evidence to show the connivance of the big folk in Vienna and Berlin. It will all be an infernal lie, of course, but the case will look black enough to the world. I’m not talking hot air, my friend. I happen to know every detail of the hellish contrivance, and I can tell you it will be the most finished piece of blackguardism since the Borgias. But it’s not going to come off if there’s a certain man who knows the wheels of the business alive right here in London on the 15th day of June. And that man is going to be your servant, Franklin P. Scudder.’
|Skimming, Scanning and Basic Comprehension|
1. To whom is the narrator talking?
2. What danger may befall Karolides? When, and where?
3. Why is Franklin P. Scudder an important character?
4. What hyperbole is used to express the strength of Karolides’s bodyguard?
5. Which term in the final paragraph is used ironically to describe the potential killers?
6. ‘My friends are not playing this game for candy.’ What does this phrase mean?
7. Which words or phrases are used in the passage to heighten the sense of danger? Highlight them.
8. The Borgia family is referred to within the passage? Why? What can be learnt about this family from this reference?
9. In what way does the author set up the idea of a potential conspiracy? What literary techniques and characters are used?
10. The Thirty-Nine Steps has a conspiracy plot involving governments, murder, and treason. Do you feel that the best literary conspiracies are wide-reaching and reach into higher authorities, or small and realistic in scale?
11. The Thirty-Nine Steps uses the idea of ‘the accidental hero’. Do you know any other books or films that use this idea?
12. Do you think you would enjoy the life of a spy? Why, or why not?
The Secret Agent
Know Your Book
by Joseph Conrad
Title: The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale
Author: Joseph Conrad (Józef Korzeniowski) (1875-1955)
Genre: Fiction; novel; espionage
Plot: Verloc lives with his wife and her mentally disabled brother in London. He is also the member of an anarchist group, as well as hired as an agent provocateur by a foreign country. Verloc is given the job of blowing up Greenwich Observatory. This job, and desire for revolution, causes discussion amongst his anarchist associates and puts pressure on his family life. The plot flashes forward to after the event, when something has gone very wrong.
Setting: London, 1886
Characters: Adolf Verloc; Winnie Verloc; Stevie; Michaelis; Ossipon; The Professor
Excerpt from Chapter XIII:
The Professor paused.
“Conceive you this folly, Ossipon? The weak! The source of all evil on this earth!” he continued with his grim assurance. “I told him that I dreamt of a world like shambles, where the weak would be taken in hand for utter extermination.”
“Do you understand, Ossipon? The source of all “evil”! They are our sinister masters — the weak, the flabby, the silly, the cowardly, the faint of heart, and the slavish of mind. They have power. They are the multitude. Theirs is the kingdom of the earth. Exterminate, exterminate! That is the only way of progress. It is! Follow me, Ossipon. First the great multitude of the weak must go, then the only relatively strong. You see? First the blind, then the deaf and the dumb, then the halt and the lame — and so on. Every taint, every vice, every prejudice, every convention must meet its doom.”
“And what remains?” asked Ossipon in a stifled voice.
“I remain — if I am strong enough,” asserted the sallow little Professor, whose large ears, thin like membranes, and standing far out from the sides of his frail skull, took on suddenly a deep red tint. “Haven’t I suffered enough from this oppression of the weak?” he continued forcibly. Then tapping the breast-pocket of his jacket: “And yet I am the force,” he went on. “But the time! The time! Give me time! Ah! that multitude, too stupid to feel either pity or fear. Sometimes I think they have everything on their side. Everything — even death — my own weapon.”
|1. The Professor might best be described as a|
b) religious fanatic
c) hero of the common man
d) narcissistic playboy
e) paranoid sociopath
|2. The Professor’s plan for society is most similar to|
a) America’s Civil Rights Movement
b) China’s Great Leap Forward
c) The Russian Revolution
d) Italy’s Renaissance
e) Nazi Germany’s Final Solution
|3. From the passage it is possible to surmise that The Secret Agent concerns|
|4. “Then tapping the breast-pocket of his jacket: “And yet I am the force,” he went on.” This line suggests that the Professor |
a) is armed
b) truly believes in his cause
c) is mentally ill
d) has money for his plan
e) wants Ossipon to join his cause
|5. When considered together, The Thirty-Nine Steps and The Secret Agent show|
a) the dangers of revealing information to strangers
b) the two different sides of conspiracy plots
c) the similarities between criminals and crime-solvers
d) how crime can affect anyone
e) the changing public opinion towards revolution