Book review: Robert Harris’ award winning “An Officer and a Spy”

Most of Robert Harris’ novels are excellent reads. “An Officer and a Spy” is no exception. His interpretation of the famous Dreyfus Affair, a real nineteenth century French scandal, quite rightly tots up one prize after another. It was awarded the Walter Scott Prize. The CWA called it this year’s best thriller. It recently won the American Library in Paris Book Award: more prizes will probably follow.

Robert Harris did a lot of research. He read contemporary accounts and other background material. (You will find a list at the back of his novel.) This enables him to bring to life 19th century Paris; from its stench, to society’s double standards, it’s shocking anti-Semitism (rampant throughout the rest of the world as well) and its corruption. Though a fictional interpretation, this book is based on facts. It is not only a thriller, a detective, a spy story, but also a historic novel.

Its main character is Colonel Georges Picquart. He is one of many Alsace people who personally experienced France’s humiliating defeat during the Franco-Prussian war. Though opting for an army career, Picquart is a kind of refugee. Like Dreyfus, he is and is not part of French society.

The novel starts with Picquart witnessing the public humiliation of Dreyfus. Picquart firmly believes that Dreyfus, his former student, is a German spy. While Dreyfus is deported to Devil’s Island, Picquart is promoted to manage France’s 19th century version of MI5. There he comes across the first signs that something is wrong with Dreyfus’ conviction. Picquart turns from a firm supporter of the official government version, into someone doubting it. Ultimately, he will become one of the people willing to take on the government, politicians, the army – to uncover the truth.

Robert Harris manages to make not only Picquart but many of his characters totally convincing and human. The pace of the story is very fast. Developments force you to continue reading. Though the plot’s twists and many of the revelations are hard to believe, it is quite chilling to realise that everything is based on facts and real events. Worse: affairs very similar to the Dreyfus one, still take place throughout this world, while there are not that many people as brave as Picquart.

Often, when a novel produces a hype, this has more to do with publishers wanting to increase profits than true quality. This time however, “An Officer and a Spy” lives up to expectations. It is a brilliant story – provided you like a detective, a thriller, a spy or historic novel.

“An Officer and a Spy” by Robert Harris, first published 2013; paperback 624 pp; Arrow 2014.
Telegraph interview with Robert Harris: the Dreyfus Affair.
Interested in a few 19th century novels Robert Harris read as background material: English and French versions of Emile Zola’s “J’ accuse” and “La Debacle” are available through Amazon and Gibert-Joseph.

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