After 100 years, Conrad's distinctive novel of espionage and counter-espionage is still the apex of the genre, the indispensable masterpiece. It's bleak, mordant, suspenseful, and funny, and it's wildly under-appreciated.
This is so perfect a spy novel that frankly no other spy novel needed ever to be written. Conrad has said it all. It's tightly plotted, completely plausible except perhaps for a few too-convenient chance meetings on the street, and profoundly insightful into the "politics" of terror. And it's freshly pertinent, even to the point of including an inadvertent suicide bomber.
There are no "good guys," it's true, and nobody on any side of things with indomitable physical or mental abilities. Every single personage is picturesquely grotesque. Every character considers himself cleverly invulnerable yet reveals himself to be irremediably foolish. The descriptions of these moral clowns and the deplorable world of mucky squalor and gilded corruption in which they move are the best writing, sentence by sentence, that Conrad ever did -- worthy of Dickens or Dostoyevsky. There's a sardonic, scornful humor in every scene, however grizzly. This is the darkest picture of human nature I've ever read. Even love and loyalty are degenerative psychoses. One expects a certain fatalistic pessimism from Conrad, sprawling across an ungainly plot, with complicated narrative overlays and ambiguous judgments. The Secret Agent is utterly different; it's as terse and unified as its subtitle claims; it's "a Simple Tale."