Paris in 1895. Alfred Dreyfus, a young Jewish officer, has just been convicted of treason, sentenced to life imprisonment at Devil’s Island, and stripped of his rank in front of a baying crowd of twenty-thousand. Among the witnesses to his humiliation is Georges Picquart, the ambitious, intellectual, recently promoted head of the counterespionage agency that “proved” Dreyfus had passed secrets to the Germans. At first, Picquart firmly believes in Dreyfus’s guilt. But it is not long after Dreyfus is delivered to his desolate prison that Picquart stumbles on information that leads him to suspect that there is still a spy at large in the French military. As evidence of the most malignant deceit mounts and spirals inexorably toward the uppermost levels of government, Picquart is compelled to question not only the case against Dreyfus but also his most deeply held beliefs about his country, and about himself.
I can remember a brief study of the Dreyfus Affair while I was at school. It intrigued me but I never followed up on it, so when I saw ‘An Officer And A Spy’ by Robert Harris I felt I had to read it. I was not disappointed.
This book is an amazing read. Mr Harris has utilised all of the primary sources and leading academic works on the subject to create an incredibly detailed novel, drawing on court records, and also Dreyfus’ own writings. This may give the impression that ‘An Office And A Spy’ is a dry history book, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Mr Harris has written a gripping novel which draws you in – I certainly found it difficult to put down. The scenic descriptions are detailed, giving a great feel for time and place, the characters are well drawn, the dialogue totally believable. But what is most compelling about the novel is the complex plotting. Spying, forged documents, trials and hearings, attempted assassinations and attempted government cover-ups all lead to a taut thriller. I had to stop a number of times and remind myself that this story is real, a true accounting of an historical event, yet it reads like a novel by John le Carré, Robert Ludlum or Frederick Forsyth.
Mr Harris has brought to life the divisions of the Third Republic in France, the racism and anti-semitism, the corruption within the army and the government. From the initial miscarriage of justice, through the search for the truth by Georges Picquart and the defence of the free press in Zola’s J’accuse speech, we are led to the final triumph of justice and release of an innocent man.
The Dreyfus Affair, a scandal and one of the most famous miscarriages of justice of all time, has lain in dusty history books for 120 years, but in ‘An Officer And A Spy’ Mr Harris has transformed it into a spellbinding, gripping thriller which I hope that someone will one day make into a movie. If only all history books could be this exciting!
Robert Haris’s web page
‘An Officer And A Spy’ on Amazon
You can see more of my Book Reviews here