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The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale (Penguin Popular Classics) Paperback – 27 Sep 2007

3.9 out of 5 stars 68 customer reviews

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Product details

  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Classics; New Ed edition (27 Sept. 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0140620567
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140620566
  • Product Dimensions: 11.1 x 0.9 x 18.1 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (68 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 627,691 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description

Review

'Elevated the spy story into literature in a way that would inspire Greene and le Carré' (Observer) --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

Book Description

'Spookily topical' - Guardian --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

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By A Customer on 16 May 2001
Format: Paperback
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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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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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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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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Format: Paperback
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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