2.01.2014

An Officer and a Spy, by Robert Harris

I received a free copy of this book to review from NetGalley, on behalf of the publisher. 

An Officer and a Spy
A good work of historical fiction doesn't need to embroider what really happened to make it more interesting. History, if the writer chooses their tale wisely, is interesting enough all on it's own. The tale Robert Harris chose to tell in An Officer and a Spy is almost too interesting for fiction. Even a century later, the Dreyfus Affair still has the power to shock and dismay.

We meet Major Georges Picquart on 5 January 1895, when Alfred Dreyfus is publicly stripped of his insignia before being shipped off to Devil's Island in the south Caribbean. Shortly thereafter, Picquart is promoted to colonel and placed at the head of the Statistical Section. The Statistical Section is the French army's intelligence division and Picquart is reluctant to become a spy. The position means reading other men's mail and stealing their trash. The section is used to operating fast and loose, as Picquart soon discovers. His reforms are greeted with trepidation and wariness on the part of the officers already there. The staff are willing to put up with their new boss until new intelligence is revealed that there is still a spy in the French army.

Marie-Georges Picquart
When Picquart digs into the matter, the evidence leads him to believe that another man, one Charles Walsin Esterhazy, is the actual spy. Further, the evidence shows that Dreyfus was an innocent man all along. No one wants him to investigate. Nearly everyone he turns to tells Picquart to let the matter drop. Picquart, historically, was a man of honor who could not let the case go. He musters as much help as he can and sets to work. The case against Esterhazy builds and builds. Esterhazy was a gambler and a debtor, who could never rise on his own because of his bad temper and fantasies. In truth, even the Germans didn't want him as a spy because of his character and because he could never get any useful material to pass on anyway. Given how big a deal everyone made at the time, you'd think Dreyfus had been accused of passing on the entire French playbook. The spy (which turned out to be Esterhazy) only managed to send part of an artillery manual and notes about a few other things.

Alfred Dreyfus' hut on Devil's Island
Picquart grows frustrated at his lack of progress, then angry at his superiors when they refuse to reopen the case. The book, and history, take a turn when those superiors decide to strike back at him. Picquart is sent on "inspections" that take him further and further away from Paris. The pretense is abandoned when he fetches up in Tunisia with the Tunisian Rifles. The final straw comes when Picquart receives orders that send him into an area boiling with angry, armed Touareg and Arabs. He arranges a week's leave in Paris, where he decides to leak what he knows to his lawyer. The lawyer takes it to a senator renowned for his honesty. And then, the wheels of justice start to turn again.

The last third of An Officer and a Spy are a tense legal thriller. I didn't cheat and look at Wikipedia once as the army and the lawyers and the spies fought each other in court. Actual history lets Harris down a bit by cheating him out of a definitive ending. But then, real life is never as tidy as fiction.

Not only does Harris revive an incredible and relevant story in An Officer and a Spy, but his tale of turn of the century spycraft fascinated me. It's incredible what Picquart and the other members of the Statistical Section were able to accomplish before electronic surveillance and computer hacking and encryption. It's such a different shadow world than the one I learned about in Le Carré and Forsyth and the rest of the genre. While the book starts slowly, I was completely riveted by the halfway point.

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