An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris

An-Officer-and-a-SpyAn Officer and a Spy is a fictional account of the Dreyfus affair Considered to be one the greatest miscarraiges of justice in history, it divided France during the 1890s and enthralled the world.

I have to admit I knew pretty much nothing about the Dreyfus affair before reading this. I haven’t studied history since I was 16 and outside of World Wars and the French Revolution I never did much French history. I knew the book was based on real events but had no idea how they would play out. That fact was probably to my benefit.

This is very much a plot driven story. The characters are what they are. There’s the various members of the army all trying to save their asses, Dreyfus described as having poor social skills isn’t the most sympathic of victims, and Picquart the up standing honourable narrator and protagonist. It is very much the plot which keeps the reader hooked. It is full of intrigue, twists, turns and general spy type things. It is the perfect story for a spy thriller. If I didn’t know it was based on true events at the outset I’m not sure I’d have believed it at the end.

There were many conflicting forces at play. Patriotism, anti-semitism, justice, honour and an attempt by some to save their skin at all costs. It was interesting to see these forces play out, especially when you consider the French national motto is “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité” [Liberty, Equality, Fraternity] and has been since the 19th century. It also raises some worrying questions about what can happen when those in power make mistakes and rather then hold their hands up, try to save their own skin irrespective of the cost to others.

The prose style is very matter of fact, almost like reading a report. It reflects the personality of the narrator Picquart who is portrayed as a reliable, honourable and practical man.

Overall it was an enjoyable, engaging and easy read. Exactly what I needed coming off the back of two classics. The only thing holding me back from giving it a 5/5 is I know I’m unlikely to reread it. While it’s enjoyable the first time around, I suspect it’s not a book which will hold up to multiple rereads.

Rating: 4/5

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