Paris, 1895: Captain Alfred Dreyfus is found guilty of spying for the Germans. He is ‘degraded’ in front of the French army (and an enormous crowd of spectators that includes the divine Sarah Bernhardt) and put aboard a ship to travel thousands of miles, encased within a metal cell, to the tiny Devil’s Island. This tropical hell is his punishment, guarded by a small group of soldiers with whom he is not permitted to exchange a word. His letters to his wife are diffused with pleas of innocence and betrayal. Most will not reach his wife but Dreyfus probably knows this. Instead his pleas for justice fall on the desk of Colonel Georges Picquart, Chief of the Statistical Section of the army. In other words, chief spy.
So begins Robert Harris’s retelling of the true story of one of the most famous miscarriages of justice of recent history. Told in the present tense by Picquart, we become privy to months of scrupulous, ingenious and increasingly dangerous investigation by Picquart and his team set against a backdrop of suspicion and hypocrisy. Dreyfus’s chief crime appears to be that he is a Jew and his sentencing is the result of prejudice, given an excuse by hostilities with Germany. As Picquart begins to gather his evidence, uncovering holes and lies and misdirections, he discovers that the ground beneath his feet is far from solid.
It would seem that nobody in Paris is without their secrets, most of them revolving around sex, but also to do with nationalism. There are spies everywhere but just as lethal are those who have turned their backs on honour. And all the time, Drefus ages on his island, chained to a bed, fenced off from the sea, but even from there his voice rings out across Paris.
An Officer and a Spy is a superb, clever novel, rich with confrontation, crisp dialogue and dismantled evidence. Paris in the 1890s, with its cultural gatherings and displays, its writers, artists and musicians, its great works of architecture and public spaces, all are vividly recreated before us. The wit and careful play between men and women with something to conceal matches perfectly the deception of the ministry of war and the army. Picquart is caught between both worlds as Paris tries to decide what to do with him. But the novel reaches beyond Paris – to its empire in North Africa – highlighting France’s relationships with its citizens that may not be French enough.
This completely satisfying and evocative historical fiction novel is also a spy thriller of the first order. As Picquart finds himself entangled further and further into the knot of French politics during these suspicious days, the tension builds until the novel becomes a race. What helps is that An Officer and a Spy is written with such wit, attention to detail and empathy for its leading characters. It’s difficult not to feel sorry for even those led astray.
While I loved Robert Harris’s Roman novels (about Cicero and Pompeii) as well as Fatherland, I disliked The Ghost and was unable to finish The Fear Index. I was intrigued by his subject matter here, though. This is an infamous tale and would seem matched to the talents of the writer of Imperium and Lustrum. And it is indeed. I was soon caught up in An Officer and A Spy and was riveted by it. The first person, present tense narrative pushes the novel on with an immediacy that resounds with foreboding, tension and dread while being driven by the desire for truth and honour. The dialogue and action scenes are equally exciting, with personalities brought to life through glimpsed moments as they pass through Picquart’s story. Alfred Dreyfus himself exerts quite an influence over An Officer and a Spy. He is an unusual man, not necessarily likeable, but he doesn’t need to be. He has become a symbol of something else that Robert Harris captures perfectly.