What’s it all about?:
January 1895. On a freezing morning in the heart of Paris, an army officer, Georges Picquart, witnesses a convicted spy, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, being publicly humiliated in front of twenty thousand spectators baying ‘Death to the Jew!’
The officer is rewarded with promotion: Picquart is made the French army’s youngest colonel and put in command of ‘the Statistical Section’ – the shadowy intelligence unit that tracked down Dreyfus.
The spy, meanwhile, is given a punishment of medieval cruelty: Dreyfus is shipped off to a lifetime of solitary confinement on Devil’s Island – unable to speak to anyone, not even his guards, his case seems closed forever.
But gradually Picquart comes to believe there is something rotten at the heart of the Statistical Section. When he discovers another German spy operating on French soil, his superiors are oddly reluctant to pursue it. Despite official warnings, Picquart persists, and soon the officer and the spy are in the same predicament.
Narrated by Picquart, An Officer and a Spy is a compelling recreation of a scandal that became the most famous miscarriage of justice in history. Compelling, too, are the echoes for our modern world: an intelligence agency gone rogue, justice corrupted in the name of national security, a newspaper witch-hunt of a persecuted minority, and the age-old instinct of those in power to cover-up their crimes.
What did I think?:
An Officer And A Spy, by British writer Robert Harris, is only the second book I have read from this author, the other being The Fear Index which I wasn’t very keen on. Richard and Judy have picked Robert Harris’ most recent novel for their Summer Book Club 2014 here in the UK, so I was prepared to give the author another try as I trust their recommendations. This novel is primarily historical fiction, however it is based on a real historical event which I have to be honest, I didn’t know too much about. It tells the story of a Jewish gentleman called Alfred Dreyfus whom, when the story opens, is being publicly humiliated in front of an angry crowd for being convicted as a spy and traitor to the French people. Our main character, Georges Picquart, plays a small part in his conviction and subsequent lifetime confinement on Devil’s Island, but is surprised after the event to be offered a promotion to Colonel, leading the “Statistical Section” of the military which happens to be the intelligence unit that discovered and presented all the evidence on Dreyfus.
Picquart isn’t exactly thrilled to be working in the intelligence sector, something he hadn’t envisioned himself being a part of, but soon gets stuck into the job and finds he is rather good at it. Perhaps too good. He soon discovers evidence of another spy working from the French side and passing intelligence to the Germans, and strangely enough, he soon uncovers certain things that suggest Dreyfus might actually be innocent. However, when he passes this information along to his superiors, instead of being rewarded for his diligence, he is told to cease all investigations into the accused party and basically “to let sleeping dogs lie.” Picquart’s conscience cannot do this, even to a man he didn’t necessarily like all that much, and he continues to accumulate evidence, albeit more covertly than before. But Picquart is playing a deadly game with the military, who are desperate to ensure that possible mistakes that were made should never come to light. He must search his conscience, and decide whether he is willing to give up everything he has ever worked for to ensure that justice is done.
As I mentioned before, I didn’t know too much about this historical event, and found the details absolutely fascinating, which made me want to read into it a bit further. It is obvious that Robert Harris is a skilled writer, and with this novel he did make me keep wanting to read on as the suspense and pace heightened. Unfortunately, for me it was missing something, and I can’t really explain what it was! The story was certainly enjoyable enough and it never felt tedious or over-exaggerated. I really enjoyed the parts when Picquart was reading the letters from Dreyfus to his wife whilst imprisoned on Devil’s Island as I felt it brought some real humanity to the novel. This is especially true when the reader learns of what he goes through while he is there, having little access to natural light, having no other company apart from some fairly brutal and malicious guards that keep him chained up etc, particularly if this specific man is innocent of all charges against him. I also warmed to the character of Picquart a lot more when he started growing a conscience and fighting for the rights of the condemned man. As a personal read I probably wouldn’t read it again, but would definitely recommend it to fans of Robert Harris or those that enjoy a good espionage read.
Would I recommend it?:
Star rating (out of 5):