An Officer and a Spy
Upon its resolution in 1906, the Dreyfus Affair was a huge scandal that divided France and had long-reaching ramifications that eventually set the stage for World War I. In 1894, Captain Alfred Dreyfus was arrested for treason. Dreyfus was a young French artillery officer of Alsatian Jewish descent who was eventually sentenced to life imprisonment for allegedly having communicated French military secrets to the German Embassy in Paris. He was sent to the penal colony at Devil's Island in French Guiana, where he spent almost five years.
Author Robert Harris has deftly taken this infamous international incident and recreated the events behind it for his latest novel, AN OFFICER AND A SPY. The primary character in this historical retelling is Colonel Georges Picquart, a young officer who received a hefty promotion prior to being tasked with leading the Statistical Section --- the unit that exposed Alfred Dreyfus.
"...a thrilling read from start to finish. It deals with historic events in such a suspenseful way that you will forget you are reading about an actual situation that impacted the balance of power in Europe at the turn of the last century."
Picquart quickly finds out that not all is as it seems, and he actually may be involved with unjustly imprisoning an innocent man. He was stunned by the anti-Semitic rants that took place at the Dreyfus trial, and begins to see that the atmosphere in both France and Germany is turning sour and those of Jewish descent may be targets for this newfound political discord.
Picquart and his unit are paralyzed by suspicion, and they recognize there may be other traitors in their midsts. However, to traverse the political landscape in order to bring about justice will not be an easy task as there are far-reaching levels of authority involved in seeing that Dreyfus take the fall for allegedly treasonous actions.
After further investigation, Picquart begins to focus on another gentlemen by the name of Esterhazy, who he feels is actually the one responsible for treason against France. If Esterhazy, another military man, is the actual traitor, then Picquart will need solid evidence to bring to his superiors to prove this.
It is here where the novel takes an unexpected twist as our protagonist has the tables turned on him. His inquiries into Esterhazy have put him in the dangerous position of potentially exposing some high-ranking French officials. His own unit turns against him, and he finds himself packed off to a cell at Devil's Island --- the same one occupied previously by Dreyfus.
AN OFFICER AND A SPY becomes a novel of retribution and revenge as Picquart must not only clear his own name but also continue to work with influential individuals --- like writer Emile Zola --- to free Dreyfus.
Robert Harris indicates in the afterword that he got the idea for writing about the Dreyfus Affair during a lunch with director Roman Polanski --- ironically, it was Polanski who directed the film adaptation of Harris's bestseller THE GHOST, called The Ghost Writer. The end result, AN OFFICER AND A SPY, is a thrilling read from start to finish. It deals with historic events in such a suspenseful way that you will forget you are reading about an actual situation that impacted the balance of power in Europe at the turn of the last century.
Reviewed by Ray Palen on January 30, 2014