This is the ninth novel from Robert Harris, the latest in an illustrious sequence including such top sellers such as `Fatherland', `Enigma', `Archangel', `Pompeii' and `The Ghost'. These novels aren't easy to compartmentalise; some are certainly thrillers, but others don't comfortably fit into that genre. Most - but not all - have a historical dimension, but even then the settings range from the recent past to the days of the Roman Empire. That's part of the author's appeal - the reader never knows quite what to expect but can be sure that, however complex the subject matter may be, it will be presented in language which may in turn be atmospheric, dynamic, provocative or idyllic but will always be accessible. As a former political reporter and journalist, Harris has enviable language skills, but he is certainly not part of the I-know-more-big-words-than-you-do school of writing.
Given such varied output, it's hardly surprising that readers will enjoy some Harris books more than others; that much is evident from the range of reviews posted here. I quite enjoyed reading his previous novel, `The Fear Index', but having finished the book I found myself picking retrospective holes in the plotting, and by the time I wrote a review I felt that it only merited three stars. That certainly hasn't happened with `An Officer and a Spy'; from the opening chapters it felt like a five-star novel, and it still does!
The novel explores the `Dreyfus Affair', a political scandal that rocked France and caught the attention of the world in the 1890s, not being finally resolved until 1906. Alfred Dreyfus was a captain in the French army, a Jew from Alsace, the French region centred on Strasbourg which was annexed by Germany after the Franco-Prussian war of 1870. In the early 1890s, the French army obtained evidence that a member of their forces was attempting to sell secret information to the Germans. On the flimsiest of circumstantial evidence, Dreyfus was arrested and subsequently tried, convicted and exiled fur life to Devil's Island, off the coast of French Guiana. He was the ideal culprit for a variety of reasons. He was a Jew at a time when anti-Semitism was rife in France. He spoke German, and French with a German accent (as in fact did a significant proportion of the inhabitants of Alsace!). He had relatives, still living in Alsace, who were now by definition German nationals. He was wealthy, but that wealth was derived from assets in Germany. He was not a social creature, but he was ambitious for advancement and asked a lot of questions. Certainly the military authorities believed him to be guilty, but they had assembled no hard evidence to support that belief and Dreyfus continued to protest his innocence.
The story is told through the eyes of Georges Picquart, who - like all the characters in the book - was a real person. As a major, Picquart had tutored Dreyfus at the Army College, and at the time of the trial he was selected to brief the Minister of War and the Chief of the General Staff on the day-to-day progress of the military court. For his success in performing this service he was promoted to the rank of colonel - the youngest in the French army - and appointed as the new head of army intelligence.
That sets the scene, and to go further might compromise the enjoyment of potential readers who, like myself, start with a vague awareness of the Dreyfus affair but little or no knowledge of the detail. Even with almost 500 pages at his disposal, the author admits that the cast of characters has had to be limited and, of course, there are - to use the author's own words - `various sleights of hand in narrative and characterisation' needed to turn fact into fiction. But, in substance, the story is told precisely as it happened.
The Dreyfus story works extremely well as a novel. Obviously, historians require facts, but facts served alone can be too dry for the palate of the general reader. Fiction, as for example in the accounts of interaction between the various characters, adds spice and (with apologies for overworking the metaphor!) makes the whole thing much more digestible.
If this review piques your interest in the book, I unreservedly recommend that you read it. You'll probably enjoy it rather more if you don't pursue Dreyfus on Google beforehand, but you should certainly do so afterwards, just to satisfy yourself that `A Officer and a Spy' stays very close to the historical facts. Even if you are already familiar with the Dreyfus affair, the book is well worth reading - the message is as relevant today as it was a century ago.
As a parting thought, if you think that this sort of thing could only happen in a country like France, think again. There have been similar miscarriages of justice on this side of the Channel - check out Oscar Slater on Google. The circumstances were admittedly rather different; the place of the French army was taken by the City of Glasgow Police Force, and the year was 1908. But as in the Dreyfus affair there was increasing public unease about the case, the protests ultimately being championed by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes. As in France the wheels of justice turned slowly and the matter was not resolved until 1928. A little more research will reveal plenty of similar cases, and it is naïve to suppose that gross miscarriages of justice are solely a thing of the past.