In 1894, Paris was rocked by the infamous Dreyfus Affair, which reverberated in France for decades after Captain Alfred Dreyfus was convicted of treason in “a monstrous miscarriage of justice.” Robert Harris’ new novel, An Officer and a Spy, builds on the riveting trial and its aftermath, perfectly demonstrating its anti-Semitic core and the sense of justice gone awry in a rigid military hierarchy.
Unjustly tried for allegedly passing defense secrets to the German embassy, Capt. Dreyfus was convicted of treason and imprisoned on notorious Devil’s Island, and it took several long years for him to be exonerated. Crucial to his eventual release was testimony from Colonel Georges Picquart, an officer in the French Ministry of War and later the head of the army’s secret intelligence service. Harris imagines the events in An Officer and a Spy from Picquart’s point of view, as he publicizes evidence that was long suppressed in the case.
The famous story highlights the timely—and timeless—dilemma faced by whistle-blowers of any era: Which should be honored, allegiance to one’s conscience or to one’s masters? The term whistle-blower is all too familiar in today’s headlines, and this meticulously researched historical novel magnifies the issues, receiving fresh, edge-of-the-seat treatment from Harris’ sure hand, whose previous historical novels have included the mega-bestsellers Fatherland, Enigma and Pompeii.
Originally strongly convinced of Dreyfus’ guilt, Col. Picquart begins to uncover evidence that calls into question the very basis of his military conviction, as he gains access to so-called “secret” evidence that at the trial was deemed “too sensitive” to reveal. In a plot worthy of the most intricate spy thrillers, Picquart discovers an enormous military cover-up and pays for that knowledge when he is silenced by a hurried transfer to a post in outlying Africa, far from the hub of Paris. In a series of thrilling events, his evidence finally reaches higher-ups known for their integrity, and Picquart eventually returns to Paris to offer testimony that helps free Dreyfus from incarceration.
Even with this information made public, Picquart pays for his stand. He is discharged from the army, denied a pension and even serves a prison sentence on trumped-up charges. But, as they say, truth will out. And this is the story of a man whose conscience won’t let him abdicate his responsibility to the truth—in short, a man who can’t let go, no matter the personal cost.