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The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale (Penguin Classics) Paperback – September 25, 2007
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In a corrupt London underworld of criminals, terrorists, and fanatics, Mr. Verloc is assigned to plant a bomb. The tragic repercussions for his family show how Conrad's ironic voice is concerned not with politics but with the terrible fates of ordinary people.
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stage for what could be an unusual mystery; with characters like Verloc and his wife, that
seemed filled with animosity and suspicion toward each other. And yet, when it came to
personal affairs, Mr. Verloc always needed to know where Mrs. Verloc was at all times;
Except when he went on a holiday without her, and would be gone for weeks. Was he
really on a secret mission? Was it because of possessiveness? Then why would he stay
away for so long? What was Mrs. Verloc afraid of? If it was Mr. Verloc, then why
wouldn’t she leave while he was on one of his excursions?
The picturesque setting took me back in time to old London and a different way of
life as our story began with Mr. Verloc taking his morning walk, right on cue. Knowing
his wife, while taking care of her brother full time, would take care of things at the shop
too; this would leave his mind for other pressing matters that seemed more important to
him at the time. But where did he really go on these morning excursions? Was he meeting
someone else? Was he planning something secret, and could not tell his wife about it?
As the mystery deepened, Mr. Verloc became more agitated and decided to take
Mrs. Verloc’s brother Stevie with him on one of his morning walks after she begged him
to. Was Mr. Verloc dragging Winnie’s brother into something he could not get out of?
One of my favorite parts of the book that showed a lot of excitement was, where
Winnie kept telling Mr. Ossipon to go inside the shop and turn out the lamp. When he
walked inside and saw what had happened, he suddenly knew what terror felt like. This
true-to-life page turner kept me engaged in trying to find the missing clues to the mayhem
and murder, along with Chief Inspector Heat.
So it is interesting to find a superbly written book about terror in a time long ago. The Secret Agent is just such a book, and how marvelous it is. Its subject is the seamy, sordid world of anarchists in Edwardian England. The year is 1907 and the main characters are Adolf Verloc, a small-time pornographer and part-time secret agent and anarchist, and his long-suffering wife Winnie. The story could seem seriously dated and improbable, but only if you forget how really terrifying the anarchists of that time were. They were that era’s terrorists, and they struck with great violence and cruelty. Crude bomb-makers blew themselves up in crowded trains and cozy cafes in Paris, crackpots from obscure political sects took potshots at crowned heads and political figures. And more victims fell than just the Archduke and Archduchess of Austria at Sarajevo. William McKinley, the U.S. president, was assassinated, as was an Austrian empress, a French president, an Italian king and a Spanish prime minister. The crimes were vicious, shocking and deadly, just like today.
Conrad conjures up this time of paranoia, delusion, cruelty and stupidity with all his considerable powers. He takes the reader deep into the criminal mind at work, with great subtlety and art. It is all very chilling and macabre, but at the same time it is so fascinating that you cannot avert your eyes.
Much of the story concerns a plot to bomb the Greenwich Observatory outside London, designed to be a symbolic attack on knowledge itself. But the real meat of this story is what is going on inside the heads of these odious characters; Conrad takes the reader on an intimate interior tour of their thoughts and calculations. It is a psychologically horrifying tale, but it is told in an old-fashioned, Hithcockian way. Only three people die in this tale, but the level of suspense is kept at a crackling level and the narrative bowls along at a pressing pace. The story unfolds with a sly, almost lewd sense of humor and an unhealthy relish for the macabre. It is a great story, told with unfailing skill and a blood-curdling charm.
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"The Secret Agent" is a lesser Conrad work, but also one of his most accessible. It also has his most interesting female character.Read more