An Officer and a Spy
© 2013 Robert Harris
In the late 19th century, the Dreyfuss Affair shook France when one Captain Alfred Dreyfuss, accused of selling French military secrets to the Germany General Staff. Declared guilty, publicly disgraced, and dramatically exiled, Dreyfuss’ name became a lightning rod of controversy. On trial, more than Dreyfuss himself, was the pride of the army and the Jewish question. Could a Jew be a loyal citizen of the Republic? An Officer and a Spy is a history of the affair in novel form, from the perspective of Colonel Marie-Georges Picquart, who observed the trial in its entirety and who, upon becoming an intelligence master, began to realize that something was amiss. Though Picquart begins as hostile to Dreyfuss, his investigation of ongoing security concerns reveals that not only is there a spy still operating within the General Staff, but the case against Dreyfuss was based on ‘evidence’ too flimsy to be respectable. When he attempts to call his superiors’ attention to this miscarriage of justice and take down the real spy, however, Pichquart becomes another target of an entrenched institution desperate to save face: the French army.
Robert Harris has displayed his strengths as a writer of fiction, with books as diverse as political thrillers set in ancient Rome to modern science-fiction thrillers set in financial markets. After books like The Fear Index and The Ghost, An Officer and a Spy is a return to the genre in which Harris proved his writing mettle: historical fiction. Its integration of source material and narrative is impressive, drawing extensively on Dreyfusses’ letters but never obtrusively. Trials are a mainstay here, as not only Dreyfuss but various suspects are dragged before courts-martial and forced to defend themselves. Picquart himself is never officially tried, but when his associates are he might as well be, for he is exiled to Africa and given a pointless and likely suicidal mission. Being a few years removed from my French history courses, I don’t know how the development of Picquart’s case aligns with reality, but it’s excellent fiction. I suspect Harris stays close to the facts, because certain characters, like the ‘real’ spy, aren’t as overblown as they might be in a purely fictional novel: the real spy isn’t particularly sinister, but in pure fiction he could have been developed as a mastermind. Because in reality he managed to stay hidden accidentally, the true villain of the piece is the French army’s distrust of Jews and their obsession with protecting themselves from additional controversy. Considering how rich in detail this book is about life during the ‘beautiful epoch’, before the great war, and about the craft of intelligence in particular, it’s an attractive historical piece while doubling as a fascinating political and legal thriller.