An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris

an officer and a spyJ’accuse!

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Based on the true story of Alfred Dreyfus, a French military officer convicted of spying for the Germans in the late 19th century, the book begins with Dreyfus’ humiliation as he is stripped of his rank and military honours in front of his army colleagues and a baying, jeering public crowd. With Dreyfus sent off to Devil’s Island and kept in almost total isolation, the matter was officially considered closed. However as suspicions began to emerge that he was not the spy after all, the army and members of the government began a cover-up that would eventually destroy reputations, wreck careers and even lives, and change the political landscape of France. This fictionalised account is based on the verifiable facts of the affair and, as far as I know, sticks pretty closely to them.

We are given the story as the first-person account of Major Georges Picquart. Having been the Minister of War’s eyes and ears during the trial and Dreyfus’ subsequent ‘military degradation’, Picquart is then appointed to the post of head of the ‘Statistical Section’ – a euphemism for the spy branch of the army. Convinced at first of Dreyfus’ guilt, he becomes concerned when evidence comes to light that indicates a different source for the leaks to the Germans. On drawing this to his superiors’ attention, he is ordered not to pursue the matter. However his conscience won’t allow him to let the matter rest there and soon he is part of the ‘Dreyfusards’ – the informal group of artists, liberals and thinkers who are campaigning for the case to be re-opened.

Auguste Mercier Minister of War
Auguste Mercier
Minister of War
Alfred Dreyfus
Alfred Dreyfus
Georges Picquart
Georges Picquart


This is a fascinating story in real life and Harris succeeds in making it just as interesting in a fictionalised form. The book is lengthy and allows him to examine the various different aspects of French society that made the case both so complex and so significant. At a time when France was still suffering the shame of losing Alsace-Lorraine to the Germans and with the fear of a future war never far from the thoughts of the politicians, Dreyfus, as a Jew and something of a misfit in the army, was the ideal scapegoat. But the real interest is not in the conviction, but in the conspiracy to cover up the mistakes of the original investigation, and the extreme lengths to which those in power were willing to go to ensure that the verdict of guilty would stand.

Emile Zola's famous open letter to the President of France accusing the authorities of a deliberate cover-up of evidence in the case
Emile Zola’s famous open letter to the President of France accusing the authorities of a deliberate cover-up of evidence in the case

We get a clear picture of the status of the army and the generals’ influence on the politicians. We see how both anti-German sentiment and anti-Semitism played their part in the affair, though I felt that Harris rather played down the former in order to somewhat over-emphasise the latter in his telling of the tale. Harris shows the underlying political divide in French society that evolved into Dreyfusard and anti-Dreyfusard movements – leaving the man himself as something of a pawn in the midst of a struggle that had grown well beyond the simple matter of his guilt or innocence. But Harris manages to humanise Dreyfus by letting the reader see some of the correspondence between him and his wife during his captivity and by telling us of the physical and mental hardships he was subjected to.

Robert Harris
Robert Harris

Well written and thought-provoking, my only real criticism of the book is that Harris has jumped on the fashionable bandwagon of using the present tense – a fashion I truly hope comes to an end fairly soon – and this reads even more clumsily because it’s also a first-person account. I know authors think the present tense gives immediacy to a narrative, but it rarely does in actuality and, for me at least, didn’t at all in this one. There’s very little ‘action’ and the tense doesn’t suit a story that is stretched over more than a decade and is obviously being told retrospectively. However, Harris handles the device as well as most and better than many, and despite it the book is a very interesting and human account of this momentous event in French history. Although I was aware of the basic facts of the affair, the book gave me a much clearer idea of the personalities and politics involved, while, by concentrating on Picquart’s story, Harris avoided the pitfalls of making it overly preachy or impersonal. And his account is detailed enough that the book would be equally enjoyable to someone who doesn’t know about this episode – perhaps more so in fact since there would then be an element of suspense (which I have done my best not to spoil). Highly recommended.

I was inspired to read this book as a result of this review from Lady Fancifull. Thanks, LF – yet another in the long list of great books you’ve introduced me to!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

32 thoughts on “An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris

  1. FictionFan – What a fascinating story! And the Dreyfus affair is one of those events that just seem to hold people’s interest even this long after. Glad you found this such a good account of it.


    • Yes, there are so many parallels to some of the cover-ups that have happened in our own time – some things never change! A very good book – I must look at what else he’s written.


  2. It does seem like a great story. If I was Dreyfus I would have taken a wicked revenge on those responsible for destroying my life. Like Dantes.

    The professor is quite glad to hear your thoughts on present tense. Everyone is always saying how it makes for better action scenes, but it does come across–at least to me–very clumsily. And it’s vexing to read.


  3. I’d forgotten about this. I meant to order a copy when it was published but somehow it slipped my mind. It’s interesting that Harris is sticking to the facts with this one when he made his name with re-imagined history. I have a pile as long as my arm already waiting for the Christmas break, so I maybe won’t get to this anytime soon, but I’m glad to have had it brought back to my attention, thank you.


    • It seemed pretty accurate to me, but I’m no expert. However he suggested in his intro that it was pretty much based on the facts and he’d only embellished the personal bits a little…

      Definitely worth putting on your list.


  4. My original post ping comment to you seems to have vanished into the ether – thanks for the delicate drawing of the veil over listing the MANY books I have also raved joyously to you about which caused you to spit rather than to smile. Glad this got the beamy FF


    • Oh? It hasn’t turned up in spam either.

      Yes, but that works both ways – the books we mutually enjoy are a sort of subset, surrounded by the giant piles of books we disagree about! I enjoyed this one a lot though…


      • I found it (my comment) on MY review. I haven’t quite got this replying from your email yet, have I?

        I really hope you enjoy the (IMO) FABULOUS Goldfinch. I’m still muttering and moiling agreeably about it, almost (but not quite) on the verge of lending my Kindle (where it is esconced) to a friend as i don’t have a hard copy to lend. I’ve also hugely enjoyed the various reviews – its one of those where the lovers of the book can find many many different things which led them to their appreciation


        • Hehe! You’re not alone! Quite often on my TBR Thursday posts people don’t seem to acknowledge the link, and then I discover they’ve commented on it on their own post rather than mine! The whole WP setup is most confusing sometimes…

          Hmm…I haven’t started The Goldfinch yet, and I must say the reviews have been putting me off rather than enthusing me. It seems to be appealing more to the fey than the realists. 😉 But we shall see…I think it might be Christmas (or even January) before I get the chance to read it. I’m determined to catch up with all the TBR Thursdays and outstanding NG reviews by year end…


  5. Great review. As a “Dreyfus nut” and a fan of Robert Harris, this was always one I was going to read. Alarmed about the present tense, though – surely a writer as established as Harris doesn’t need to jump on this kind of bandwagon?


  6. Ha, I was just reading about the Dreyfus affair in ‘The War That Ended Peace’ (that book is going well, by the way; surprisingly readable for a book of its length and breadth!).

    With you on the present tense – WHY?!!? First person narratives are bad enough; combined with present tense they are lethal!


    • Yes, I’d just read ‘The War…’ before reading this, which was good given my notoriously bad memory since it had reminded me of the events around the case. Glad you’re enjoying it (The War) – I loved her writing style – it made it really easy to get through even the less interesting bits.

      Why indeed? And it’s so clunky when it’s first person. I don’t understand why they do it. It must be harder to write as well as to read, I’d have thought…


  7. So glad I’m not the only one questioning present tense! It doesn’t bother me if it’s done well, but with certain writers it feels very awkward. I’ve even caught one or two authors slipping in and out of present tense, which frustrates me to no end…use present tense if you must, but at least stick to it once you’ve made up your mind!


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