Robert Harris is the master of the historical thriller. Whether it is a well-known parts of history like the destruction of Pompeii or Cicero in Ancient Rome or even an alternate re-imagining like Hitler’s 70th birthday celebrations Robert Harris always manages to keep you on the edge of your seat.
Part of his brilliance is his ability to distill historical events into the form of a modern-day thriller. Imperium read like a legal thriller while the follow-up Lustrum was an intense political thriller. An Officer and a Spy borrows on both these structures as well as incorporating the cat and mouse games of the spy thriller as Harris takes on The Dreyfus Affair.
I must admit my ignorance to having no knowledge of The Dreyfus Affair before reading the book so I did get to enjoy this historical retelling blind, so to speak. However this is the author who made Pompeii thrilling even though we all know how that story ends.
What I loved the best about this book is how Harris tells the story. The book is narrated by Major (soon to be Colonel) Georges Picquart. We pick up the story at Captain Alfred Dreyfus’s military degradation (his official denouncement as a traitor and parade in front of his fellow soldiers). Picquart has been monitoring Dreyfus’s closed trial and reporting back to the Minister for War. For this work he is rewarded with promotion and takes charge of France’s intelligence bureau.
It is here however that he uncovers that not all was as it appeared with the Dreyfus case. When Picquart uncovers another possible spy in the French Army his investigation leads him to conclude that Dreyfus may have been innocent. Despite warnings to drop the case Picquart is determined to uncover the truth but with those involved in positions of power and influence Picquart is soon facing the same fate of Dreyfus.
History can often be dry and difficult to relate to in the modern world. Robert Harris is able not only to bring to life the events of over a century ago but also the tension, intrigue and misplaced loyalties that made The Dreyfus Affair one of history’s most notorious cases.