The Dreyfus case – with its blend of corruption in high places, and high tension as the plot was unravelled. – is, let’s be fair, the perfect meat for a writer expert in historical literary thrillers to sink his teeth into. And here’s Robert Harris to prove that point.
In 1894, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, an officer in the French military was arrested, tried and imprisoned on the remote Devil’s Island for spying for the Germans. In numerous different ways both the investigation and the trial were shams, with Dreyfus convicted through the use of secret evidence that his defence was never allowed to see. However, the guilty verdict was hailed as a triumph throughout the whole of France, with the country – still traumatised from war against Germany in 1870 – uniting in their hatred of the Jewish Dreyfus. Shortly afterwards, Georges Picquart, who’d played a small role in Dreyfus’s arrest, was appointed Spymaster for France. It wasn’t long before he came across worrying information that Dreyfus wasn’t actually the spy, and that dishonour instead belonged to a Major Ferdinand Esterhazy. Except when he took this information to his superiors he was told to bury it, and it swiftly became clear that the powerful would rather keep a guilty verdict against Dreyfus and uphold the good name of the French republic, than pursue a case against Esterhazy which would inevitably overturn it. As Picquart continued to hunt down the truth, he found himself in danger of being framed and rail-roaded in much the same way Dreyfus was.
It’s actually a fantastic decision for Harris to make Picquart the first person narrator. He’s the perfect choice, a man whose certainties are shattered while his moral centre holds firm. It ensures that the book is always at the heart of the action; that even when the character is sent into exile in Tunisia, the action has a way of catching up on him. And yet if I have a criticism, the book remains a curiously dispassionate one. Even when Picquart does something passionate – like storm out of a trial, or have an affair with a married woman – there’s a coldness to the prose, one that has an odd distancing effect. Maybe there are just so many passionate screeds out there about the Dreyfus case that Harris felt the need to go another way, or maybe the real Picquart was known as a bit of a cold halibut. It doesn’t make for a bad book by any means, but it does make for a book one can like, but maybe struggle to truly warm to.
It’s often said of Nixon that the real thing that brought him down wasn’t Watergate, it was the cover-up. (Although, let’s be fair, Tricky Dick’s hands were undeniably dirty by that point, but he did exacerbate matters by attempting to draw the veil.) That’s the trouble with cover ups, there may be one original lie/crime/mistake, but the cover-up requires hundreds of untruths and fabrications. Suddenly the crime itself is almost incidental, what becomes the real focus is the big wobbly tower of lies built on ridiculously shaky foundations. That’s what this book is about. It’s us looking through Picquart’s eyes as the tower is built up, and then watching this honourable man’s attempts to smash it down, all whilst following the rules of his beloved army. AN OFFICER AND A SPY is a fascinating, sometimes shocking (even at this great distance) and incredibly tense read.
My debut novel, THE WANNABES – which has been out of print for a little while – is now available for free. A supernatural thriller of beautiful actresses and deadly ambition in London town, it’s well worth your time. You can get your copy here!