‘An Officer and a Spy’ is a historical fiction novel based on the Alfred Dreyfus affair in France from 1894 to 1906.
Everyone seemed to be spying on everyone else back then (not much seems to have changed) and with a devastating loss to Germany in 1870, France is particularly intent on spying on the Germans. They discover that someone in the French army is passing information to the Germans and Alfred Dreyfus is found guilty of treason and sentenced to life imprisonment. Our hero of the story – Georges Picquard played a small role in the Dreyfus trial.
When Picquard is promoted to Colonel and placed in charge of the Statistical Section (the counter-espionage unit) he finds out a lot more about Dreyfus. He discovers the harshness of Dreyfus’s imprisonment on Devils Island. He also comes to realise the flimsiness of the evidence against Dreyfus.
Then Picquard discovers that information is still being passed to the Germans and that Dreyfus was just a scapegoat with the real traitor still at large.
But when Picquard attempts to have the Dreyfus case reinvestigated, he is turned down by his superiors. Dreyfus is a very convenient traitor – Jewish, wealthy and not very personable, and, it would be an embarrassment to now find him innocent. The army can quietly deal with the real traitor.
Picquard continues to push and places his career and even his life on the line.
The story is mostly factually accurate with Harris having carried out a lot of research. The fiction enters in the way that the story is dramatized and in some of the details of the various characters lives.
At the time that the story was based, anti-Semitism in France was rampant and very open. This comes across very clearly in the novel and surprisingly so in Picquard’s case.
I found the first half of the book difficult to get into, it was quite slow and detailed. But, once I got to the second half, it was absolutely riveting and definitely worth the effort that the first half required.
This was an excellent novel and I hope to read a lot more of Robert Harris’s books.
Book Published 2013