I read An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris in June, but as I was on a roll, reading but not reviewing books I’ve only just got round to writing about it. I loved it, one of my TBRS, a hardback book I bought in 2016. I’d heard of the Dreyfus affair but knew very little about it.
In his Author’s Note Harris writes that his aim in writing this novel was to ‘retell the true story of the Dreyfus affair‘, describing it as ‘perhaps the greatest political scandal and miscarriage of justice in history, which in the 1890s came to obsess France an ultimately the entire world‘. What follows is a chillingly dark, and realistic novel of conspiracy and espionage.
The book begins in 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.
It’s narrated by Colonel George Picquart, Chief of the Statistical Section of the French Army, who became convinced that Dreyfus was innocent. But Picquart is told by his superiors to drop his investigation. Despite that he doesn’t and ends up losing his position and being relocated to North Africa, where he was assigned a dangerous mission. Eventually he was dismissed from the Army whilst Dreyfus remained imprisoned on Devil’s Island under the most appalling conditions. Dreyfus was released from prison in 1899 but was only exonerated in 1906.
What gives An Officer and a Spy such authenticity is that Harris has used transcripts of the various trials, inquiries and hearings, biographies, family letters as well as Dreyfus’s own writings in writing his novel. He goes into meticulous detail in staying accurate to the actual events, but even so this is a gripping book and I was completely absorbed by it from start to finish.
Robert Harris is one of my favourite writers and I have yet to read a book of his that disappointed me, but this book surpassed my expectations, and is one of his best in my opinion.