Robert Harris’s novel, An Officer and a Spy, has won the CWA Ian Fleming Gold Dagger for the best thriller of the year and deservedly so. It is a masterly fictional account of the Dreyfus affair, one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in history. I have been intrigued by it since I came across it when I taught a course on French painting 1880-1920. The affair, in which Jewish army officer, Alfred Dreyfus, was wrongly convicted of treason and exiled to penal servitude on Devil’s Island, split the nation and caused bitter arguments, dividing even families into Dreyfusards and anti-Dreyfusards. The artist Degas was an anti-Dreyfusard. The cover-up went right to the top, involving high-ranking officers and politicians. It was only the courage of army officer Georges Picquart, and a few others, including Emile Zola, that blew the conspiracy apart. Zola’s open letter to the President of the Republic, beginning ‘J’accuse’, on the front page of the newspaper L’Aurore on 13 January 1898 was a clarion call to justice.
It’s a great story, and Robert Harris pulls off the difficult job of turning a complex historical event into a thrilling novel. His research – which must have been meticulous – never intrudes, the pace doesn’t slacken. It is narrated in the first person by George Picquart and this works well, as we share with him the dawning realisation of what has happened and the danger that he personally is in as he struggles, reluctantly at first, to right a terrible wrong. An Officer and a Spy is a great read.