Posted: December 19, 2013 in Book Awards, France, Germany, Historical

51DiUU6W8XL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_SX385_SY500_CR,0,0,385,500_SH20_OU02_ The complexity of The Dreyfus Affair means that writing a book about the gross miscarriage of justice that divided France so deeply might J_accuseproduce something that is a difficult read. But Robert Harris, author of superb books like Fatherland and Enigma, has by the simple expedient of making the story a novel retold in the words of Colonel Georges Picquart, newly appointed head of the statistical section, has brought a clarity to the events of 1895-1906, and in the process written a brilliant thriller.

As a teenager I learned the basic facts of the case; a Jewish officer Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a French artillery officer from Alsace, was convicted of espionage on the flimsy evidence of handwriting on the ‘bordereau’ a document retrieved from a waste paper basket at the German Embassy. He suffered a terrible public degradation ceremony, the episode which begins this novel, and was subsequently exiled to spend a lifetime in solitary confinement on Devil’s Island, a hell hole off the coast of French Guiana. It later becomes clear that another officer, a low life Major Walsin Esterhazy is the traitor, but the Army are unwilling to accept this evidence as they believe overturning the verdict of the military court will weaken the nation’s confidence in the Army. Blatant anti-Semitism masquerading as concern for the nation, and the reaction of the powerful to any challenge.

Of course he would betray us, because he hates us; he has hated us all along because he isn’t like us, and knows he never will be, for all his money: he is just…..A regular Jew!

This stance is supported by large elements of the population who would rather see the traitor Esterhazy go free than the innocent Jew Dreyfus be released from a captivity. A captivity which he bears stoically still proclaiming his innocence. When Colonel Picquart, who at first believes Dreyfus to be guilty and does not particularly like the man, becomes convinced of his innocence and thus of Esterhazy’s guilt he is packed off by his superiors on a lengthy tour of provincial France, and then exiled to Tunisia, where they attempt to send him on a suicidal mission into the desert.

‘But if we discover Esterhazy was the traitor and Dreyfus wasn’t…?’

‘Well we won’t discover that, will we?  

Thanks to the efforts of the Dreyfus family the Affair attracts the attention of many important people. France becomes a divided nation. The Dreyfusards importantly include among their numbers the novelist Emile Zola, and the politician and newspaper editor Georges Clemenceau.

Esterhazy is acquitted in a farcical court martial, Emile Zola writes a famous letter to L’Aurore and is convicted of libel, Dreyfus faces a second trial and is found guilty again, although his sentence is commuted to ten years………..

The ironic end of this story is that Alfred Dreyfus, is the only leading character in this tragic drama who serves in the French Army during the Great War, and then he outlives all of them dying in 1935 at the age of 75.

An Officer and A Spy is a very fine novel full of great characters, plot and atmosphere. Robert Harris has got inside the personality of his protagonist, Georges Picquart, cleverly used the real life characters to give an account of the real life events embellished with a dialogue that reflects the atmosphere of Paris in that period. It helped the author that the Affair is full of memorable villains with Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy, a rogue, traitor and embezzler who awarded himself the title of count while gambling away his family fortune; and those responsible for manipulating the evidence Major Hubert-Joseph Henry; Colonel Armand du Paty de Clam, and their pathetic superiors Generals Mercier, Billot, de Boisdeffre and Gonse. With a plot full of lawyers, shootings, forgery, gay diplomats, suspected murders, surete detectives, prisons, duels, beautiful women, corruption, court martials and treachery in high places An Officer and A Spy has more than enough action to keep the reader turning the pages.

In order to write such a superb novelisation Robert Harris meticulously researched original sources, letters, court transcripts and newspapers of the time to produce a thriller with a strong message about incompetent security services and virulent anti-Semitism that is relevant to our time.

‘It is a great thing to have done all that, and at the end of it to have been appointed to the Cabinet of the French Republic.’

‘And yet, you know, the strange truth is I would never have attained it without you.’

‘No, my General,’ says Dreyfus, ‘you attained it because you did your duty.’


An Officer and A Spy has already won the National Book Award Popular Fiction Book of the Year, in my opinion it has to be a contender for the CWA Ellis Peters Historical Crime Fiction Prize.      

  1. Margot Kinberg says:

    Norman – It does indeed take talent to tell a story this complex in a way that is both accurate and clear. Sometimes fictional retelling is the best approach, and Harris certainly has the skill to do it. Thanks for sharing this review, and I’m very glad to hear that the book is this good.

  2. TracyK says:

    A very nice and thorough review. I already planned to read this because of the subject matter, but you have convinced me it will be a good read.

  3. Blighty says:

    This sounds brilliant, thank you for your excellent review.

  4. Norman Price says:

    Thanks Margot- I think this book should be compulsory reading in schools, because young people do not understand what the situation was like in earlier times. They learn about the Holocaust but think those attitudes were confined to Nazi Germany. My stepdaughter did not realise that there were quotas restricting the intake of Jewish students to some UK medical schools as late as the 1960s.

    Thanks TraceyK- I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. I did not realise it had won the prize until I was about half way through, and it was nice to agree with judges for once. 😉
    I don’t think France has ever recovered from the trauma, and remained a divided country contributing to the disaster of June 1940.

  5. MarinaSofia says:

    I remember watching a TV series about the Dreyfus Affair as a child – it was either French or German, I can’t remember, but it really opened my eyes about things. Previously, I had only remembered Zola’s ‘j’accuse…’ Sounds like an engaging read – Harris is great at recreating historical events with just the right amount of accuracy and excitement.

  6. Hi Norman – I really enjoyed this one too, I think it tells a terrific complex story very clearly. As you say, it’s an textbook piece on the dangers and horrors of anti-Semitism. I kept thinking bits of the book must be exaggerated or made more dramatic, but as Harris says at the beginning, he has changed very little. Every time I looked something up, it turned out to be true…

    • Norman Price says:

      Moira- I agree truth us stranger than fiction and sometimes more dramatic. I was shocked by the note that Armand du Paty de Clam’s son Charles became Head of Jewish affairs in Vichy France.

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