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3.9 out of 5 stars68
3.9 out of 5 stars
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on 16 May 2001
E.M. Forster apparently said something to the effect that Conrad's London in 'The Secret Agent' was too dark a place: a foreigners projection of European anxieties onto, in reality, a far more benevolent scene. It's true, Conrad's vision of England's capital is dark, but you'd have to say that it is no darker than, say, moments in Dickens', or even T.S. Eliot's 'Wasteland'. Developments in both the world of Crime Thrillers, and in the reality of terrorism and espionage suggest that Conrad was certainly onto something. Indeed, many now current clichés of the genre can be seen to originate from Conrad's book: mainly that the criminal and the policeman; the terrorist and the 'keeper of the peace' are not worlds apart. Few contemporary writers, however, are quite as keen and scrupulous as Conrad, who is never shy of taking us into the deepest and darkest places in the modern political psyche. Conrad's prose is as intensely atmospheric, as psychologically penetrating, and as layered with ironies as anything you will read in English. Sometimes it takes an 'outsider view' to tell you hard things about your beloved little Island. You won't get Merchant Ivory touching Conrad.
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on 20 February 2014
Read this for the second time, after about 6 years. Conrad definitely improves with a second (and third) reading, becomes less dense: one begins to see and savour details in description and/or characterisation which probably were missed first time round in one's desire to get on with the story (never a good tactic with Conrad). Taken slowly and benefitting from going back and re-reading passages this is a wonderful book!
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VINE VOICEon 10 January 2007
Conrad's prose is dense, difficult and gorgeous. Before you pick up a book like this, you need to prepare yourself for an author who will happily write eight pages or so of prose between two lines in a conversation and not apologise (in fact there is, as is customary for Conrad, a self-justifying foreword). Patience will reward you with a surprising and darkly humorous tale of anarchists learning that real sources of chaos, anarchy and violence have little to do with abstract ideas.

It's not much like Heart of Darkness. Heart of Darkness is perhaps more important in the history of literature, but this is bigger, richer and more enjoyable. Read both.
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on 19 October 2013
This is an excellent reading of one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century. Although Steven Crossley does not have the most beautiful voice and his range of character voices is limited, he reads with fine intelligence and a sure sense of where the novel is going. He voices the boorish, sluggish Verloc superbly. Those whose admiration for Conrad is rooted in their love of Heart of Darkness will be surprised by this novel's unremittingly ironic tone, narrative detachment and tight discipline. It is one of the most satisfyingly constructed novels in the canon: Conrad stretches and manipulates chronology with consummate virtuosity. From the opening paragraph it is clear he sees the whole story, all its characters' shifting narrative perspectives with unerring clarity. A masterpiece from which any aspiring novelist could learn a great deal.
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This book is part of the Penguin series that is helping to support fighting AIDs in Africa. Part of the proceeds from this will be going to charity, so while you are settled down reading this you are helping a worthwhile cause.

The great Conrad actually used a real event to write this tale, and what he describes can be seen how things used to be in this country. If you wondered why there was such a worldwide condemnation of 7/7, even greater than that for 9/11 reading this you will soon realise why. Basically if you weren't up to anything that would disrupt British policy abroad the security services may monitor you, but wouldn't necessarily get involved. The Communist Manifesto was written here, revolutions were planned from here for all over the world, and people were more or less left to get on with it, after all we were the bastion of democracy.

That out of the way I will get to the story. Verloc runs a shop but is also a secret agent, having meetings with dissidents and anarchists above the shop in his home. Verloc is really living a quite settled life, after all he has married and has taken on the responsibility of supporting his wife, her mother, and his retarded brother in law. Verloc's life isn't some rich playboy existence, but he seems happy enough scraping thorugh like everyone else. Things are about to change though, as his paymasters want to see some results.

Taking in politics, terrorism and espionage this is a very dark black comedy that has always sold well. Not a bestseller in its day, this has always had a steady market and really it should be more widely read than it is now. Unlike the spy novels that came later, there are no gadgets and loads of derring-do. This is much more down to earth, after all when the government gets a whiff of a possible plot it is a word in the ear of the other respective governemnt's official, which lets face it is how things are done. If you have never read this before, why not? If you are studying international politics or terrorism this novel may be of some use to you with regards to how things are done in the real world.
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on 5 December 2000
Verloc is an Embassy spy in London at the end of the nineteenth century, who is informed by his (rather shady) employers that it is time he earned his pay by doing more than just submitting reports. The choice of action he chooses to appease those at the Embassy forms the basis of the book, and we see how other characters are affected by what he decides.
At times "The Secret Agent" is a little heavy-going - a section near the middle of the book discussing the Assistant Commissioner of Police and a Chief Inspector enlightens us as to these characters but the circular nature of their conversations grates a little and I felt anxious for the action to return to the far more interesting Mr. Verloc & family. Indeed in Verloc, his wife, brother - and mother - in law, Conrad creates entirely credible, very human characters, and their pain is conveyed to the reader in a manner which made me think: "Yes, that's exactly what people are like."
The ending of the book is a little predictable, but skillfully executed. My major criticism would be the depiction of the shadowy revolutionists - I was never quite sure what they were rebelling against, or why, and they were not as credible as the other characters. This, however, may have been Conrad's aim.
On the whole, an original story which is at times very involving. It also has some very funny moments which are usually quite unexpected, but which seem to work, nonetheless.
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on 9 November 2015
I've always been fascinated by Victorian society and ideals. From their rampant empire building, their obsession with engineering projects, to their puritanical streak when dealing with moral issues, the Victorians could never be accused of being dull.

The common cliché of Victorian society is a rigid hierarchy, an adherence to Christianity and a zeal for moral observance in all walks of life.

Hence, the pendulum swings from one extreme (the crusade to outlaw child labour) at home, to another abroad (the demands for the British government to implement direct rule in India after the mutiny.)

Such a society has invariably, produced a rich seam of literature. From Dracula to HG Wells, from Kipling to Conrad.

Conrad, the outsider, is well placed to present a snapshot of Victorian society. From chronicling imperialism's logical conclusion in The Heart of Darkness, to portraying the seedy underbelly of London society in The Secret Agent.

The fear of foreigners, of anarchists threatening the established order, was the Victorian's bête noir, and Conrad does an admirable job of capturing the flavour of that moral panic.

Although at times the prose may be dense (understandable as English wasn't Conrad's mother tongue) Conrad succeeds in giving us an intriguing, suspenseful story.
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on 5 February 1999
Well, that's how it has been described. Don't expect anything like a Frederick Forsythe though. This is a novel of complex characters and is more about domestic life than espionage. The symbolism of the victimization of the innocent by those out to further personal greed and political ideals rings as true at the end of the century as at the begining.
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on 29 July 2013
The plot is as follows: Mr Verloc lives with his wife and her backward brother above a `stationery shop' in seedy Soho in the early 20th century. Make of that what you will but there are many fronts and shades of deception right from the start of this novel; the actual nature of the goings-on at the shop thus play a very small role. Our Mr Verloc visits a foreign embassy in chapter 2 (probably the Russians) and reluctantly agrees to carry out an `anarchist' act at Greenwich.

This is a story about how to mess up and how one sad man's foolishness and weak will have a devastating impact on a family. It takes a light-hearted but mocking look at human nature and weakness yet the subject matter is serious and does not let up.

It is quite densely written but you need to get to the end of chapter 3 as things become clearer after that. Do not be put off by the long conversation between Verloc and Vladimir in chapter 2 as this difficult meeting with the embassy official does sow the seed for the carnage that follows (and `carnage' is the correct word here).
It's an early example of a political thriller with some melodrama thrown in but don't expect a light read to start with. There is no instant gratification in tomes of this stature. However, it is a properly-crafted book by an author who knows how to manipulate the reader mercilessly.
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on 2 January 2014
Not only perceptive of the deepest motives of our race, in a context very relevant today, it seems to me that Conrad employs the methods of the psychoanalyst and of the cinematographer before either profession had come into being! What is more, the amazing achievement is crowned with humour.
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