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Wednesday, April 2, 2014

An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris

Knopf, 448 pages, $27.95

It has been so much the recent passion for authors to take real-life people and build mysteries around them. The unlikeliest historical figures have become nosy private eyes. Freud, Jung, Dickens, Austen, to name a few. Unlike the liberal imaginings and jiggerings of those characters, An Officer and a Spy is fictional only in how author Robert Harris has roundly visualized an actual occurrence. Many of us may not know what The Dreyfus Affair was, but it probably rings a vague bell somewhere. Harris has captured the real individuals involved, given them life and dimension, and dramatized a very remarkable time in French history.

Many sources can provide information about The Dreyfus Affair. Wikipedia, for instance, provides a synopsis and biographies of the major characters, so it’s possible to see how closely Harris adhered to accepted accounts.

The hero of the story is not Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish man accused of passing French military secrets to the Germans, but Colonel Picquart, the head of the “Statistical Section,” the spy department of France’s army. He was anti-Semitic and a loyal 25-year Army man when he took over as head of the spies. But in the course of getting to know his job, he examined the material accumulated against Dreyfus and was shocked to realize how flimsy the evidence really was. Then, of course, there was the matter of the evidence that indicated the traitor was really someone else.

Oooooh, myyyyy, as George Takei would say.

Even if you know the course of events, Robert Harris is still capable of capturing his readers’ steady attention and making his work into a page-turner. He presents Picquart’s moral and personal dilemmas with a depth and feeling that bring Picquart to life. Furthermore, Harris brings forth the Paris of the time (1894-1906) and the political turmoil that allowed Dreyfus to be wrongly convicted.

This is truly an excellent spy story (with a couple of murders thrown in), well-written and attention-holding.

What could I do but give it an MBTB star?

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