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Inside the Thriller,
This review is from: The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale (Penguin Classics) (Paperback)
If most modern thrillers are like a boxing glove, showing you the force and direction, sometimes misdirection, of the punch, then this book is the inside of that glove - giving all the thoughts, feelings, assumptions and life choices that went into the punch. It's an exquisite book that combines the pulse of a good plot with a convincing understanding of what makes people tick.
Mr Verloc is a lazy spy in the pay of the Russian government in late 19th Century London. His job is to report on anarchists and revolutionaries as the tide of change and worker's rights sweeps across Europe. England's tolerant attitudes don't suit Moscow and so Verloc is asked to concoct a bombing atrocity in order to stiffen the backbone of the British Government.
So far so good, but this novel is only superficially, if stylishly, concerned with geopolitics. Conrad's real concern is driving deep into the motives and methods of Mr and Mrs Verloc and what lies behind their relationship and indeed, behind the mechanics of each of the relationships that is exposed in this novel. It transpires that Mrs Verloc has married to secure the future of her sub-normal brother Stevie, who is the real love in her life. So that in fact, whilst Mr Verloc appears to be the secretive one, his motives are transparent - money - whilst those of Mrs Verloc are deeply under cover, until Stevie is killed in the bombing, when the real action starts. Around all of this are a group of policemen, politicians and anarchists, living in each other's pockets and both needing and loathing each other.
Each encounter is played both straight, as a means of moving the plot forward, and diagnostically, as a forensic examination of the motives and objects of each participant. The action moves ahead relentlessly but the pace is like a stopped clock with every look, remark and thought chewed over to extract flavour from it. It's the same technique as Flaubert's Madame Bovary but whereas that novel seems to stretch on into infinity, here the need to move the action on through the bombing to the police investigation brings tension to the story that makes the slow pacing work with the action not against it.
All that said, this was not a great commercial success on publication, with only a few thousand copies being sold. And anyone being misled by the title to expect a spy adventure story will be very disappointed. If however you want a thriller where the action is slowed down so that why things happen is as clear as what happens, you will greatly enjoy this book.