The Secret Agent (1907) by Joseph Conrad
Pbk, Penguin, 249 pp.
The Secret Agent is an awesome book. The story, set in the 1880s, concerns Adolf Verloc, an agent provocateur, living in London. He is a lazy and indolent man who has been in the employ of some Embassy (presumably Russian) collecting information on the various anarchists and terrorists in the city. A change in bosses stirs him out of his complacency and sparks unforeseen drama within his family and in the anarchist society.
I don't want to give too much away of the plot because although it is fairy simple the joy comes in finding out how events unfold. The real reason why you should read this novel by Conrad is for the language and writing style. He characterizes and writes descriptions with vividness and power like no one I have ever read. I leave you with a representative quote:
Mr Vladimir, First Secretary, had a drawing-room reputation as an agreeable and entertaining man. He was something of a favourite in society. His wit consisted in discovering droll connections between incongruous ideas; and when talking in that strain he sat well forward of his seat, with his left hand raised, as if exhibiting his funny demonstrations between the thumb and forefinger, while his round and clean-shaven face wore an expression of merry perplexity.
But there was no trace of merriment or perplexity in the way he looked at Mr Verloc. Lying far back in the deep arm-chair, with squarely spread elbows, and throwing one leg over a thick knee, he had with his smooth and rosy countenance the air of a preternaturally thriving baby that will not stand nonsense from anybody.
"You understand French, I suppose?" he said.
Mr Verloc stated huskily that he did. His whole vast bulk had a forward inclination. He stood on the carpet in the middle of the room, clutching his hat and stick in one hand; the other hung lifelessly by his side. He muttered unobtrusively somewhere deep down in his throat something about having done his military service in the French artillery. At once, with contemptuous perversity, Mr Vladimir changed the language, and began to speak idiomatic English without the slightest trace of a foreign accent.