Book Review: An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris

An Officer and a SpyAn Officer and a Spy
Robert Harris
Alfred A. Knopf, January 2014
ISBN 978-0-385-34958-1
Hardcover

You could say that this is the story of Alfred Dreyfus who was convicted for treason in Paris in 1895. But, oh, this historical thriller is also much more than that.

The story is told from the point of view of Colonel Georges Picquart, head of counterespionage, who finds himself re-investigating the case after Dreyfus’ imprisonment. I found Picquart to be a very interesting guy. He’s been in the military most of his life, doesn’t have much of a personal life, is an ambitious man out of sync with those around him. He doesn’t buy their “If I’m told to shoot someone, I shoot” mentality. Picquart questions things. He investigates. He puts his career and even himself in great jeopardy.

You won’t need to know anything about the Dreyfus affair or 19th century France to enjoy this book. I waited to read more about the actual case until after I had finished the book so I wouldn’t know what was going to happen. Even if you tend not to like historical fiction, you may very well like this book. It could be classified in several genres: a mystery, a thriller, espionage, conspiracy. What I found most fascinating about it is that it makes sense of how a situation can evolve into a conspiracy without anyone ever planning one in the first place.

There are many characters involved here but it’s never a problem remembering them all. There’s a list of characters at the beginning of the book. And the author is very good about reminding the reader who each character is each time he brings them back into the story.

My favorite quote: “If I pull back now… I’d be obliged to spend the rest of my life with the knowledge that when the moment came, I couldn’t rise to it. It would destroy me – I’d never be able to look at a painting or read a novel or listen to music again without a creeping sense of shame.”

It’s a compelling read, written in a very engaging style with a lot of intensity and passion. It certainly made me think. My favorite kind of book.

Reviewed by Constance Reader, February 2014.