An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris

An Officer and a Spy “Is it possible that innocence is not recognised in an age of enlightenment and truth? Let them search. I ask no favour, but I ask the justice that is the right of every human being. Let them continue to search; let those who possess powerful means of investigation use them towards this object; it is for them a sacred duty of humanity and justice.”

In 1894, Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer in the French army, is found guilty of spying and passing on France’s military secrets to the Germans. After being publicly degraded and stripped of his rank at a ceremony in Paris, he is exiled to Devil’s Island to live in solitary confinement in a tiny stone hut. One of the men involved in the conviction of Dreyfus is Georges Picquart, the narrator of An Officer and a Spy.

At first, Georges is sure that Dreyfus is guilty, but after being promoted to Colonel and made head of the Statistical Section (French military intelligence) he starts to have doubts. And when evidence of a second spy comes to light, Georges begins to wonder…what if Dreyfus was innocent all along?

An Officer and a Spy may be a work of fiction, but the events I’ve described above really happened. Known as the Dreyfus Affair, it was a serious miscarriage of justice that caused a huge scandal and divided public opinion in France. The author Emile Zola was even inspired to write an article in support of Dreyfus which was published under the title J’accuse…! and led to him being brought to trial for libel. The most shocking aspect of the case was the extent to which military officials had attempted to cover up the truth and fabricate evidence to hide the fact that mistakes had been made and that an innocent man had been used as a scapegoat.

This fictional account of the Dreyfus Affair is closely based on historical fact. The first half of the novel follows Georges Picquart as he discovers that there’s more to the case than meets the eye; in the second half we see what he decides to do with the information he has uncovered. Every step of the way he is thwarted by the very people he should have been able to depend upon for help and it becomes obvious that some members of his department are more interested in protecting their reputations than in seeing justice prevail.

This is the first book I’ve read by Robert Harris; for a long time he’s been an author I’ve been aware of without ever thinking I might enjoy, but when I saw that this novel had won this year’s Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction it convinced me to give it a try. And guess what? I loved it! Not having much previous knowledge of the Dreyfus story (it was touched on in Paris by Edward Rutherfurd but this is the first time I’ve read about it in any depth), I was completely gripped by Georges Picquart’s investigations.

From the historical fiction perspective, this book is excellent. It’s packed with information but never becomes boring or overly detailed and it’s firmly set in its time period – Georges travels by steam train, he communicates via telegram, and during a posting in Tunisia he can only rely on out-of-date newspapers as a way of following the progress of the case at home in France. But I would also recommend this book to readers of spy novels and thrillers and to anyone who enjoys well-written, well-researched fiction in general. Although the pace is slow at the beginning, it soon becomes quite a page turner, especially if you’re not very familiar with the facts of the Dreyfus Affair.

An Officer and a Spy really is a fascinating novel and took me through a range of emotions from shock to frustration to absolute outrage! Now I would like to try another book by Robert Harris. Any suggestions?