The Secret Agent—Joseph Conrad
With apologies to Messrs. Conrad and Kurtz, this is the book for all of us who find it harder to read Heart of Darkness than Herodotus. Based on a real attack in London’s Greenwich Park in 1894, the novel follows Mr. Verloc and a group of anarchist terrorists as they plan a dynamite outrage in newly-industrialized 1886 London. The Secret Agent also details Verloc’s domestic life, complete with a beautiful younger wife, a mentally disabled brother-in-law, and a mother-in-law who wields guilt to greater effect than the terrorists’ explosives. Conrad’s Dickensian bent toward caricature lends this early narrative of modern terrorism, beloved by the Unabomber and noted as one of the three works of literature most cited by the American media after 9/11, some much-needed (though still undeniably dark) levity.