This is my review of An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris.
Robert Harris is a past master at historical fiction based on dramatic political situations: in this case the notorious Dreyfus case in which an uptight Jewish Major in the French army was framed for a minor act of espionage, for which relatively minor offence, blown up out of all proportion, he was transported to the remote former leper colony of Devil's island. Just when you might expect the passage of time to erode interest, it has been revived in a recent crop of books including this novel which follows historical evidence closely. Harris focuses on Colonel Picquart, the mildly anti-semitic officer whose realisation that the evidence has been trumped up in a "dodgy dossier" leads him to sacrifice his reputation, even his freedom to obtain justice for Dreyfus, since his sense of honour and conscience will not allow him to do otherwise.
This is a gripping version with well-developed characters and some tense or moving scenes. Harris digests a mountain of detail to present the tortuous process of court martials and trials in clear and easily digestible terms. If it all gets a bit exhausting towards the end, that only conveys the feelings of déjà vue which the protagonists must have suffered. Harris succeeds in conveying Picquart's growing frustration, his sense of foreboding changing to moments of fear, anger and resignation, as he realises the extent to which his enemies are prepared to restrict his activities and twist events, rather than see the public lose confidence in the army's integrity.
I could not help thinking that, good though this novel may be, truth is stranger than fiction, so that the non-fiction "The Dreyfus Affair" by Piers Paul Read, for instance, which I read first, actually proved more shocking, moving and informative as regards: the personality of Dreyfus; his brother's impressive events to prove his innocence; the background forces such as the divisions between traditional Catholic society and the Republican movement accused of working with influential Jewish financiers who attracted so much suspicion and hatred; last but not least, the inflated degree to which the French split into opposing camps over the case, with the "Dreyfusards" eventually gaining enough support from abroad to turn the tide.