A great read about a still fascinating major scandal,
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This review is from: An Officer and a Spy (Hardcover)
How do you write a thriller when the outcome is already well known? That's the challenge the most recent televised adaptation of Sherlock Holmes managed brilliantly in its last series with the episode reimagining Sherlock Holmes's plunge at the Reichenbach Falls. It's a challenge that Robert Harris also rises to in his fictional adaptation of the Alfred Dreyfus scandal.
Harris is helped a little by the fact that someone knowing the overall outlines of the case is still likely to be surprised by one or two of the genuine twists along the way. Even so, it is an impressive reflection of his ability to summon up such a convincing picture of life in late 19th and early 20th century France that the book is so gripping. It is a world in which great social and political pressures were played out in a high profile and controversial case of alleged espionage as the Jewish French army captain, Alfred Dreyfus, was accused of spying for Germany. (This case also saw the word 'intellectuals' coined as a noun, to describe the literary and other highly educated figures who publicly backed Dreyfus.)
Many other reviews have commented that it is hard to see where the join between fiction and reality is in the book, for it sticks closely to what is known and weaves in very tightly the extra fictional parts which let Harris, in his words "dramatise [and] invent many personal details".
The book sticks closely to perspective of George Picquart, a major player in the scandal and so a good vantage point from which to view it. This gives the reader a compelling account of some of the conspiracy's participants, along with the how and the why of the way they get sucked into a bigger and bigger conspiracy in an effort to win the day.
It also means that Alfred Dreyfus himself is a somewhat remote figure during the book and - perhaps the book's one real flaw - that the reader also does not get much to explain why so many outside the conspiracy believed in its truthfulness so strongly for so long despite the contrary evidence.
Even so, it is a great read about a still fascinating major scandal.