In the 1890s an horrific miscarriage of justice took place in France when a Jewish army officer was convicted of spying and incarcerated on Devil’s Island. This is the background for Robert Harris’ exceptional thriller An Officer and a Spy. This is the eighth of my 12 in 12 Challenge books for April where I am reading historical novels. It is a fascinating read.
The story features Georges Picquart who is a senior army officer and peripherally connected with the conviction of Dreyfus. He is promoted to be the head of the Intelligence Service and in his work begins to uncover facts which show that it was not Dreyfus that was the traitor. The problem is that no one in the army high command wants to listen. No one wants to admit to having made a mistake and as Dreyfus is a Jew they are not very concerned about what happens to him. In fact Dreyfus isn’t very likeable and he is certainly not “one of us”. Picquart is initially naïve and then stubborn and won’t give up his pursuit of the truth.
I didn’t know a huge amount about the Dreyfus affair before I read this book but I found it compelling reading. The author, through Picquart’s experience, demonstrates the embedded anti-Semitism of the time and the political ambition of army officers. He also reveals what some people will do to avoid backing down. It is chilling.
I thought that the author did a really good job of helping me understand the situation of the time. In Picquart he creates a sympathetic but flawed hero who ends up fighting for right because he can’t let go – I don’t know enough about the events and personalities of the time to be sure that this is a true representation but it feels true and the character feels real. It is not an easy task that Picquart undertakes and the consequences for some participants are lethal but we do see that he holds many of the prejudices of his colleagues, the difference being that he allows the evidence to speak rather than engineering the facts to fit his story.
This is not an overwhelmingly fast paced book but the detail is what is gripping. Even though you will probably know the eventual outcome it is the process of getting there that is fascinating and the author kept my attention all the way through. I thought that there were a lot of well fleshed out minor characters and that the depiction of the society and culture of the time was very atmospheric and really added to the story.
Definitely worth reading – compelling stuff.