The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad

This is one of the great novelistic portraits of London: a London full of smoke and fog, seedy backstreet pubs, horse-drawn cabs, and gaslights. That’s what I like best about it, really, the London it creates and the grotesque characters that inhabit it: Verloc himself, the secret agent and seller of pornography, his coterie of seedy, ageing and probably ineffectual foreign anarchists and revolutionaries, the police chief on his trail, the idiot brother. All of that is done brilliantly. One vaguely assumes that as a European immigrant to London himself, Conrad was drawing on personal experience in his portrayal of the anarchists, but it’s just as possible that he made it all up. In fact, reading my own description of it, it makes it sound like he set out to write a parody of a Sherlock Holmes novel.

On the whole, I think that when it gets into the psychodrama at the end — his wife’s reaction to what has happened — it becomes a bit less interesting. But it’s still a great book.