An Officer and a Spy is a historical fiction novel based on the Dreyfus affair, a political scandal which took place in turn of the 20th Century France. The affair is a standard bearer for injustice by a nation state. Dreyfus was sent to an isolated prison situated on Devils Island for passing on state secrets to France’s principle enemy of the time, Germany. The action takes place within the French secret service, as Head of the intelligence section Georges Picquart becomes less and less convinced by the Dreyfus trials legitimacy.
The book is historical fiction at it’s best, placing you in the shoes of a prominent figure, involved in a prominent issue in an interesting period in history. I’m a huge fan of historical fiction as it allows the reader to immerse themselves in a time period and also learn about history whilst being entertained. If you don’t enjoy historical fiction then I would avoid this book. To someone not intrigued by the subject matter, this book could be seen as dry and boring. If your looking for action and adventure, look elsewhere, as this book delves into political conspiracy in a bureaucratic style. The majority of the book consists of character discourse and evidence finding and analysis. So before purchasing this book I would give it a bit of thought as to whether this is entertaining to you as I understand that it could be boring to some.
Most of the entertainment from this book comes from a truly immersive setting as well as a thoroughly well researched set of characters. General Picquart is a very engaging protagonist and the character creates an empathy for his situation, the powerlessness of being confronted with a national conspiracy is tangible on every page as you reach the books conclusion. This is an impressive feat as Harris doesn’t give trivial details of the character to make him understandable. Very little is known about his life, he is portrayed simply as a man dedicated to his job and to justice. The supporting characters are also complex and interesting, with a host of Picquarts colleagues becoming more and more intriguing as the book progresses.
The narrative of the story twists and turns at a steady pace throughout. The scale of the affair itself is quite extraordinary if you aren’t familiar with it and the subject matter makes this book very absorbing. It definitely falls into the category of page turners. Once you are into the plot, you just can’t wait to see the issue resolved, this makes the book an interesting summer read and worthy of the readers time.
It must be said that this book is in no way ground breaking. The historical fiction is based entirely on true events, not really deviating from real events, except from creating the dialogue of the characters. This makes the book less thought provoking than a historical fiction book with a little bit more fiction, like Dominion by C.J Samson, for example. On completing Dominion a host of questions run through your mind, based on the fact that the author manipulates history to tell a compelling story. With An Officer and A Spy, it’s simply retelling history in a narrative format. This makes it less stirring as a book by comparison. Even so, it is still absorbing, particularly if, like me, you weren’t aware of the Dreyfus affair before reading. Knowing about the subject before reading ruins a lot of the books surprises.
I am giving this book a 7 out of 10. the book is a real page turner for those interested in history, but could be considered boring by those less interested. It is a retelling of an astonishing political scandal and for that alone the book is worth a read. It is proficiently written, with good character development, but this is not a ground breaking book in my opinion.