A Man in Uniform is set in the Paris of the 1890s, a world familiar to many of us from Impressionist paintings of street scenes and bohemian cafes. But author Kate Taylor is looking at the more conventional cityscape of lawyer’s offices, formal balls and the broad boulevards of the Right Bank. France is recovering from the Franco-Prussian war, as well as the seismic cultural waves set off by the real-life Dreyfus Affair, in which the French captain Alfred Dreyfus, wrongly accused of espionage, was exiled to Devil’s Island. At the edge of this scandal is lawyer François Dubon, whose bourgeois life is about to be rocked by the very issues that are tearing his country apart.

Dubon’s life is order itself. His lucrative practice consists of drafting legal documents for upper-class Parisians. He enjoys a comfortable marriage to an aristocratic wife, and satisfying post-work encounters with his mistress. When a mysterious widow comes to his office with a request to save her family friend, Alfred Dreyfus, Dubon is intrigued. Though he feels himself ill-suited to the task, he is drawn by the widow’s vulnerability, as well as the excitement the request adds to his complacent practice.

Dubon’s early legal career was spent defending the Communards (the prosecuted or exiled Socialists and Communists who had briefly held the Paris Commune following the Franco-Prussian war), and even though he keeps this episode firmly relegated to the past for fear of disturbing his well-heeled clients, the sense of working for justice once again proves intoxicating. Dubon finds himself taking greater and greater chances in order to assist the widow, including disguising himself as a military officer and infiltrating the Bureau of Statistical Section, a cover for a military counter-espionage group. Soon Dubon is risking his well-ordered world of work, marriage and mistress.

Canadian author Taylor artfully mixes mystery and history in this enjoyable novel. She is attuned to the subtle maneuverings in both public service and the aristocratic society represented by Dubon’s friends and family.

A Man in Uniform has just enough action to keep the pages turning, while also providing a detailed portrait of a country under siege—and its impact on a single man who struggles to do what he knows is right in the face of a startling political cover-up.

 

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