An Officer And A Spy by Robert Harris

51lle2PzxlL It is 1895 and French army officer Alfred Dreyfus has been exposed as a spy, found passing military secrets to the Germans. In a piece of cruel public theatre – the sort of flashy display the army has always quite fancied – he is stripped of his soldier’s uniform and his sword is broken in front of thousands of his fellow officers. Humiliated and ruined, he is then shipped to the notorious Devil’s Island penal colony and kept in terrible, solitary conditions as a warning to anyone thinking of treason against the Republic. There’s only one problem. Dreyfus protests his innocence. And as the new head of a military espionage, Colonel Georges Picquart, looks into the case, he starts to believe him. There was a spy – but it wasn’t Dreyfus. Documents have even been fabricated and there are (perhaps conscious) echoes of the 2003 ‘dodgy dossier’ which convinced the British government that an invasion of Iraq was a sensible option. In this case, the military and political establishment of France closed ranks to keep an innocent man in the most appalling privation. As true-life miscarriages of justice go, it has a gold standard feel to it. Picquart begins to suffer the chill breath of persecution himself, in effect exiled to Tunisia and put up for a suicide mission. Anything to get rid of him. Harris is good at this sort of thing, although seemingly dogged by that baffling shoulder-chip which weighs down even the most financially successful of novelists – the absence of serious critical acclaim. Why else would he have Picquart say at one point: ‘I have come to see that thrillers may sometimes contain more truths than all Monsieur Zola’s social realism put together’? Perhaps he’s just joshing. He’s an intelligent fellow and knows that it doesn’t really matter. And if he does think it matters then I would suggest a cursory look at his bank account might help. Of course, the problem with reading anything by Robert Harris is that it does mean you are not reading something else of real literary merit. But one needs a holiday from excellence from time to time, and Harris provides it. He has other skills, like getting you to actually turn the pages.

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