I've been putting off writing about Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent (originally published 1907, this edition Cambridge University Press, 1990) much in the way I put off reading it. I tried this perennial resident of top-ten-mystery/thriller/espionage reads after finishing From Russia With Love, and the contrast in writing style and approach and well, pretty much everything, was just too much. Yes, I put the Agent down because it felt too hard. This is supposed to be fun! A soupcon of guilt, with a dash of stubborn curiosity (there must be something to it, else it would not be on all those lists) sent me back, and I'm glad it did. Reader, please be aware: I've read no other Conrad (no, not even Heart of Darkness, but I have seen Apocalypse Now, like, twice!), nor have I read any lit crit about him. And I'm not starting now. So, this is a raw (although not as raw as Dallas Buyers Club, which I saw last night) response, unfettered by any notions of scholarship.
If you are serious about your crime and espionage fiction, yes, you should read this. With The Secret Agent, Conrad is clearly the literary forefather of Eric Ambler and John le Carre. You are dropped into a story where you don't quite know what is going on, but it seems that there may be a decent fellow or two, some hopelessly naive folk, and Authorities who are stupid or worse. The story changes perspective and jumps ahead in time with no warning, so you've got to keep your wits about you you to figure out what exactly is going on. I can't even say who is the protagonist. Is it Verloc, the first central character whom we meet? He is the secret agent, after all, there is no doubt about that. But then maybe it is Chief Inspector Heat who seems to occupy everyone's attention - and his own - for a while. No, clearly it is the Assistant Commissioner. He's the most likely candidate until we get to Mrs. Verloc. It's that kind of story.
Having made the comparison to JlC and his lonely patriots, I should note that there aren't really any heroes here. Even the Assistant Commissioner, who keeps Chief Inspector Heat from pursuing one suspect at the expense of procedure and evidence, seems driven more by a desire to mitigate potential damage to his marriage than by What Is Right. In some respects, only Mrs. Verloc's motives at the climactic moment are clear and comprehensible. Yet this is very much an internal story. A brief conversation takes pages and pages, as every possible thought that might rush through a character's mind is laid out, parsed, debated, and dispensed with before he or she says anything. It is like reading a story in slow motion.
Conrad's prose is dense and wordy and you might find yourself reading sentences a second time, partly to just understand but also in a way to savor. I feel overwhelmed by the prospect of choosing an example, but consider just this grim description of night-time London:
"He left the scene of his daily labours quickly like an unobtrusive shadow. His descent into the street was like the descent into a slimy aquarium from which the water had been run off. A murky, gloomy dampness enveloped him. The walls of the houses were wet, the mud of the roadway glistened with an effect of phosphorescence, and when he emerged into the Strand out of a narrow street by the side of Charing Cross Station the genius of the locality assimilated him. He might have been but one more of the queer foreign fish that can be seen of an evening about there flitting round the dark corners." (114) Don't you love that? It's all gas lamps and fog but there is no witty sleuth around the corner, just more primordial ooze tossing up a few survivors.
This splendidly turgid prose contains within it some intense social commentary. No one is exempt from Conrad's sarcasm (not like today's hel-LO sarcasm, this is far more subtle), his is a society peopled exclusively by the faulty or those lacking in some critical positive element. Mr. Verloc disdains work, and the revolutionaries are laughable in their self-absorbed idiocies. "The terrorist, as he called himself," (there is that sarcasm) "was old and bald, with a narrow, snow white wisp of a goatee hanging limply from his chin. An extraordinary expression of underhand malevolence survived in his extinguished eyes. When he rose painfully the thrusting forward of a skinny groping hand deformed by gouty swellings suggested the effort of a moribund murderer summing all his remaining strength for a last stab. . . . His worn out passion, resembling in its its impotent fierceness the excitement of a senile sensualist, was badly served by a dried throat and toothless gums which seemed to catch the tip of his tongue." (38) But how do you really feel about revolutionaries, Joseph?
You get the sense that for Conrad, there isn't much good to say about any of these characters, and that this is just the human condition. Mrs. V's sad backstory and family are cruelly laid out for the reader, and Chief Inspector Heat is obviously all that is wrong with law enforcement in any decade! The Assistant Commissioner is a more nuanced character, but descriptions of his high-ranking government contact make a plain statement about Conrad's view of high-ranking government officials. Here's what I have learned about Conrad: for him, you are what you are, and you cannot escape your fate.
"The head of the Special Crimes department debarred from his position for going out of doors personally in quest of secrets locked up in guilty breasts [see what I mean? Implied criticism of police work in general, and of higher ranks who don't actually work in the field.], had a propensity to exercise his considerable gifts for the detection of incriminating truth upon his own subordinates. That peculiar instinct could hardly be called a weakness. It was natural. He was a born detective. It had unconsciously governed his choice of a career, and if it ever failed him in life it was perhaps in the one exceptional circumstance of his marriage - which was also natural. It fed, since it could not roam abroad, upon the human material which was brought to it in its official seclusions. We can never cease to be ourselves." (92)
Indeed, humanity has few redeeming qualities. The Secret Agent is not a story for those in a dark place but it is worth reading. Just make sure to hang out with some jolly children afterwards or something, to banish the darkness.