An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris

An Officer and a Spy book CoverAn Intriguing Look into Historical Scandal 4.5 Stars

Robert Harris has written an intriguing thriller chronicling what is know as the Dreyfus affair. I don’t blame you if you know nothing of this event as it was unknown to me when I opened the novel. Fans of political thrillers, historical fiction and history should find this to be a perfect mesh of genres. While I remain unable to separate the fact from the author’s fiction, further investigation leads me to believe this is reasonably accurate version of events.

Plot summary

In 1894 a Captain in the French Army by the name of Alfred Dreyfus was arrested, charged with selling secrets to the Germans, convicted of Treason and sent to serve an inhuman sentence on Devil’s Island in French Guiana. The conviction was based on a compilation of poor evidence, anti-Semitism, political pressure and anti-German sentiment. Soon after the conviction, Georges Picquart takes over as the head of the intelligence branch of the Army where he comes to have serious doubts regarding the guilt of Dreyfus. Given the political climate in France and the implications of his discoveries, Picquart does not know whom he can trust and engages in an investigation that may never have a satisfactory resolution.

The Good

An Eye for History

Like the best Historical Fiction, the author has a keen eye for the period and historical accuracy. The story felt properly situated within the time period. The mannerisms and speech felt appropriate and little felt out of place. The author also explored the rampant anti-Semitism that was running through France at the time. This theme was dealt with in a deft manner and never turned into a political statement. It simply came off as an honest description of the attitude of the French during these years.

The Story is not Bad Either

The Dreyfus Affair was a complex and divisive matter in its day. It is no less complex today. The author was masterful in the manner in which he was able to distill the varying reasons for the affair and elegantly lay them out in a cohesive manner. This is by no means a “light and fluffy” read. In is multilayered and by its nature is filled with unsatisfactory answers. Amongst the complexities, the story does an admirable job of introducing the reader to the counter-intelligence methods of the period. While the novel describes the intelligence branch as the future of the Army, the methods used were equally crude, impressive and ripe for misuse.

The Bad

Let’s Get to know Each Other

If I have anything negative to say it is that I was a bit disappointed with the development of George Piquart. The character was obviously conflicted throughout the story and I would have enjoyed if the author had explored that theme. I appreciate that this may have been deliberate and at any rate, it is a minor complaint. One other issue was the audiobook itself. David Rintoul is a top notch narrator and I take no issue with his performance. I simply question why the narrator is British and not French. The majority of audiobooks use the local accents with their novels. There was not a single French accent to be heard.

Can this Book Stand Alone

Yes. This is not part of a series

Final Thoughts

Some readers will find the pace to be far too slow. Personally, I am a fan of the meandering novel and I did not take issue with the pacing. This is simply a warning to prospective readers. While the intrigue continued to string me along, it was not blistering action and thrills that propelled my interest. The novel is complex, deals with serious issues of politics, legal systems and prejudice. In my opinion, is a Thriller in the best sense.

Content Advisories

It is difficult to find commentary on the sex/violence/language content of book if you are interested. I make an effort to give you the information so you can make an informed decision before reading. *Disclaimer* I do not take note or count the occurrences of adult language as I read. I am simply giving approximations.

Scale 1 – Lowest 5 – Highest

Sex 2

A subplot involves an extramarital affair. There are several secret rendezvous throughout the story but the sex is generally implied and is not graphic.

Language 2

The adult language is generally very mild as many of the interactions are between officers and their superiors. As such, the language is often formal and leaves little room for adult language.

Violence 2.5

There is some violence in the form of suicides/murders. They are simply discovered and the description are moderately graphic. The situation of Richard Dreyfus is discussed from time to time and his living conditions are, at best, squalid. Some readers my find the mental torture inflicted to be disturbing. Outside of this, physical violence is low.

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Tim Written by:

Tim is a lawyer, sports fan, parent, husband and book lover. He runs his own legal practice and is the founder of The Literary Lawyer book blog and a contributing writer for Tim loves to share his love of reading by providing reviews to entertain as well as provide information to help you make an informed reading decision.