An Officer and a Spy-Robert Harris
Based upon the Dreyfus affair, an infamous miscarriage of justice in fin de secle France. After having hunted down a spy, an investigator, Picquart, gets promoted to the head of the Statistical Unit. Unfortunately, he was unaware of the politics and machinations that were going on in the corrupt heart of his country’s intelligence bureau. Of course, once he asks questions, things go awry.
I have no idea, still, how much of this historical fiction tale is real. Because it is told in a way that it feels like you’re reading narrative non-fiction. There is nothing that seems unbelievable in the way Harris presents this story-nor in the prose nor in the plot. Amazing work. His attention to detail really forms the background to the story-the details of the daily work of an intelligence bureau as well as the little details that signal power within a hierarchy are all as richly drawn as the characterization. The pacing is immediate and that forces you to emphasize with the frustration as Picquart tries valiantly to correct the misdeeds of his government. And I think the prose was excellent-Picquart comes across as principled and meticulous as you’d expect a top-notch inspector to be which makes the whole awful mess more stark. I came to really like Picquart as a person-intelligent and curious-but Harris doesn’t neglect the character development of the ‘villians’ of the story either. The anti-semitism can be hard to read through but Harris carries you through.
I also enjoy how Harris never really forgets the modern world in which he is writing. He clearly seeks to the universal-many of his aphorisms and introspection apply to both the 19th century and the 21st. So in this way, he really keys into the strength of a historian-the application of previous events to the understanding/enrichment of today.