Monday, February 24, 2014

An Officer and a Spy

by Robert Harris
Knopf, 2014.  429 pgs.  Historical Fiction 

Robert Harris takes on the Dreyfus Affair in his latest historical thriller, “An Officer and a Spy.” If you dust off your high-school history, you may remember this story of a Jewish officer accused of treason, drummed out of the French army in 1895, and sent to solitary confinement on Devil’s Island. In this deft reenactment of that time and event, Harris employs Georges Picquart, the historical challenger of Dreyfus’ sentence, as his narrator. Picquart is not an overly sympathetic character.  He’s stiff, a bit chilly, is having an affair with another man’s wife, and doesn’t even like Dreyfus, whom he tutored in military training.  But as the newly-minted head of the French Army’s Intelligence Division, he wants justice to be done and finds, as he investigates, that it has not been. After a bit of a slow start as Harris builds background, “An Officer and a Spy” generates considerable suspense and tension as Picquart figures out that the team in his own office is working against him because they want the Jewish Dreyfus to be guilty to cover their own ineptitude and anti-Semitism. Those who defend Dreyfus, notably Emile Zola with his famous “J’Accuse” essay, are charged and jailed or exiled. The final working out of the problem is neither sentimental nor any more satisfying than it must have been in real life, but feels true to the time and the characters involved. Robert Harris, master of historical fiction, has done it again in this fine novel of turn-of-the-century France, an excellent book filled with a perfect mix of fact and fiction. 


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