Review: The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad

I’ve been slacking quite a bit on the reading aspect of my 50 year challenge. I started the year off well and then hit a wall. Part of the problem was I started reading Walden by Henry David Thoreau. It turned out to be the wrong book. I read at night to unwind and Walden is not the type of book that helps me unwind. Usually I hate to set a book aside, especially when I like it, but I needed to since I wasn’t reading for this challenge.

I picked up The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad. I hadn’t heard of this novel before moving to London and last year when I was in a bookshop in Bath I stumbled upon a decent used copy so I purchased it. This novel is about Mr. Verloc, who is a secret agent. Mr. Verloc’s employers want him to make a statement by destroying a building. The secret agent sets out to blow up the Greenwich Observatory and everything goes wrong. Drastically wrong.

When the novel was first released in 1907, the action in the story takes place in 1886, it didn’t fare too well. In fact, during Conrad’s lifetime the sales picked up some, but not a whole lot. Today many think The Secret Agent is one of his best novels.

Personally I can see why it didn’t sell all that well when it was first released. For me the issue is that Conrad understands human nature. There’s a reason why I hate watching the news since each evening there are stories about how humans can be so deplorable. This novel demonstrates this. Conrad wrote at a time when terrorism was on the rise and maybe the public wasn’t ready for such an honest portrayal of terrorism and anarchism. Today terrorism is such a constant in our lives, however it doesn’t make the subject matter easier.

This doesn’t mean that I didn’t enjoy the novel. I did on a certain level. It’s the type of work that really makes you stop and think. It also made me cringe. I didn’t like many of the characters in the novel and I’m pretty sure we aren’t meant to like them. And the descriptions of life in London are difficult to read.

I noticed on Wikipedia that Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, was a huge fan of Conrad’s novel. He identified with the Professor, who is an anarchist who specializes in explosives. Kaczynski asked his family to read The Secret Agent so they could understand him. After his arrest the FBI learned that Kaczynski actually used Conrad, including different variations, as an alias.

Would I recommend this novel to others? Yes and no. It’s a difficult novel to read due to the subject matter. However, it is insightful. It’s hard to avoid all things that are ugly and maybe we shouldn’t. This novel is referred to a lot and if you’re curious to know why, then I say give it a go.

About TBM

TB Markinson is an American who's recently returned to the US after a seven-year stint in the UK and Ireland. When she isn't writing, she's traveling the world, watching sports on the telly, visiting pubs in New England, or reading. Not necessarily in that order. Her novels have hit Amazon bestseller lists for lesbian fiction and lesbian romance. She cohosts the Lesbians Who Write Podcast ( with Clare Lydon. TB also runs I Heart Lesfic (, a place for authors and fans of lesfic to come together to celebrate lesbian fiction.
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36 Responses to Review: The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad

  1. I’ve wanted to read this one for some time actually. Conrad is so good at portraying the uglier, darker side of humanity in a way that really makes you cringe, as you say. Can’t wait to get my book collection back so I can read this!

    • TBM says:

      He does know how to make the reader cringe, that’s for sure. He reminds me of Coetzee in that regard. I hope you aren’t separated from your collection for long.

  2. Trying to remember if I’ve read this one or not. But on a more general point, I like Conrad anyway, I think I have Heart of Darkness, Nostromo and something else in one book – could be Secret Agent for all I recall. I think his narrative style is very very good. He’s never an easy read, but he’s always a good read.

    • TBM says:

      That’s a good way of putting. Not an easy read, but a good read. I know when I sit down with his books my emotions will be put through the wringer. He makes good points and his observations are scary.

  3. I’m familiar with it but haven’t read it, but I must say it sounds remarkably current. I also watch the news regularly. It might often be ugly, but that’s the world we live in and it’s not always all bad. Prince George is adorable. I hope he doesn’t inherit William’s hairline, or lack of one. You give good review.

    • TBM says:

      I actually haven’t seen any recent photos of George.

      • Wow, you truly do have an aversion to looking at the news. He’s getting to be a familiar little face over here. A cute little chub who recently visited New Zealand with Mum and Dad.

      • TBM says:

        I heard about their trip, but didn’t see any photos. I used to be a news junkie, but maybe I’ve swung to the opposite side of the spectrum and that’s not good.

  4. Caroline says:

    I think it’s importnat to read books on subject matters like this but sometimes life’s too rough already – so it’s good of you to include a warning.
    I would really like to read more Conrad. I was very impressed when I read Almayer’s Folly. He is excellent at portaying human nature, you’re right. I might read Heart of Darkness first, but I’d like to read this too. I agree with lameadventures, it does sound topical.

    • I agree with Caroline here. It’s important to read books on difficult subject matters, but sometimes I just can’t take more depravity about the seedy side of human nature.

      Would you recommend The Secret Agent or Heart of Darkness?

      • TBM says:

        I have to cheat and say I recommend both. they both show the depravity of humans, but each story is unique. Heart of Darkness was a tougher read for me.

    • TBM says:

      I remember liking Heart of Darkness, but I was also stunned by it. It’s not an easy read, but I think an important read.

  5. i haven’t read this one, but i think it’s in a collection on the shelf here somewhere. i’ll add it to my tbr list. it is hard to read about some things, but it does help us better understand human nature, i think.

  6. Jo Bryant says:

    I think that it is true…sometimes you need to read the hard to read books, watch the hard to see things…or we run the risk of believing all is good with the world

  7. poppytump says:

    TBM … Must say haven’t been able to tackle Joseph Conrad since reading Nostromo at school …. my loss maybe 😉

  8. Always meant to read Heart of Darkness, but never got around to it. I understand what you’re saying because I just finished a book on Chechnya and it was so depressing, but so interesting. After a book like that I need something much lighter in tone.

  9. Rorybore says:

    You know, this is one I have not read. Surprisingly since I enjoyed Heart of Darkness and like how Conrad “gets” human behaviour, as you say. Although he can also be quite ambiguous too.
    I wanted to return to some of the classics that I had missed over my college years, so perhaps this is a good one to start with.

    • TBM says:

      I’m a huge fan of classics. Don’t get me wrong, I love modern reads, but there’s something about the classics that pull me in.

  10. Don’t think I’ve ever heard of THE SECRET AGENT before. I do remember liking HEART OF DARKNESS when I had to read it back in high school, though, so I may have to give this one a try, if I ever have the opportunity…

    • TBM says:

      I didn’t read Heart of Darkness in school. I’m finding I didn’t read a lot of the normal books everyone else read in school. Really makes me wonder about my teachers.

      • There’s actually quite a few books many read for school that I never had to, so you’re not alone! (Like The Outsiders, Catcher in the Rye, etc.) It varies from class-to-class, I guess!

      • TBM says:

        I didn’t read either of those in school. I have read Catcher in the Rye on my own and it’s one of my favorites. Still haven’t read The Outsiders.

  11. Vishy says:

    Nice review, TBM. Glad to know that you liked ‘The Secret Agent’ though the subject matter it covers is difficult. It is a book I want to read sometime. I have read ‘Heart of Darkness’ and though I didn’t like it as much as I had hoped to, I loved Joseph Conrad’s prose – he writes quite beautifully. So, I hope to read a Conrad book again soon. I also hope that you can pick up Thoreau’s ‘Walden’ sometime and continue from where you had left off – it is such a beautiful book.

    • TBM says:

      It’s hard to like Heart of Darkness but you’re right, he’s an excellent writer and his prose is captivating even if you are squirming in your chair.

      I have plans to return to Walden. Just wasn’t the right book for my mood these days. I don’t want it to seem like a chore.

  12. Novroz says:

    I like your review. You didn’t tell much of the story but we can imagine what it’s like to read it.
    I think the only terrorist book I have read is A State of Fear by Micheal Crichton.

  13. calmgrove says:

    Thanks for the insights into this. It would be interesting for me to compare this to the contemporary novel by G K Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday, also supposedly about anarchist bombers but which I was less than impressed by.

    • TBM says:

      I haven’t read Chesterton’s novel yet, but I did live a few blocks from where he used to live. That was pretty neat. Might have to read his novel and see how it compares.

      • calmgrove says:

        If I remember, the opening of the novel is apparently set in the same general area where he lived, Bedford Park — is that right? Is that your area?

      • TBM says:

        Chesterton used to live, according to the blue plaque I would spy, next to Holland Park. I lived in Earl’s Court and would walk by it when taking my dog to Holland Park.

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