|Bob Hoskins played Verloc in the most recent film version|
The Secret Agent (1907)
by Joseph Conrad
Don't get me wrong: I've certainly gained a sophisticated appreciation for the marriage/property obsessed Novels of Victorian England, but it isn't really until you get to Joseph Conrad that I start to warm up to a novelist on a personal level. For me, Conrad is the beginning of my personal interest in the art form, from Conrad, through Orwell, to Pynchon and David Foster Wallace, it is easy enough to trace a direct line from Conrad, and The Secret Agent, Conrad's only(?) "London" novel is an excellent example, and perhaps the first example of what I would call the paranoid tendency in Literature.
This posture, the idea that the world is a dark place filled with conspiracies and conspirators- none of them benevolent- was not an idea invented by modern Novelists or modernists generally, but it is a posture that contrasts dramatically with the positivist tone of the Victorians. The plot of The Secret Agent is simple enough: Verloc is an agent in the pay of an unnamed foreign power (Germany I think?) A change of Ambassador creates a situation where he is forced to justify is status as an agent provocateur by, you know, actually doing something.
Verloc tries to destroy the Greenwich observatory, but only succeeds in killing the mentally disabled younger brother of his wife, which leads to his wife murdering him, which leads to one of his cohorts robbing her, which leads to the wife killing herself. It's a messy, murky web of despair, and you can actually feel the ugliness seep from the page.
In other words, after literally a hundred years of young girls whining about their marriage prospects, and young upper glass brits worrying about who is going to inherit which property from whose will, The Secret Agent is a breath of fresh air- as is true of ALL of Conrad's books.