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.
My sadness at seeing that Blackwell’s in Broomhill was about to close didn’t stop me from going in and buying a few books at half price. One of them was The Fear Index by Robert Harris, and what a gripping read this turned out to be. Alex Hoffmann has become fabulously wealthy through his invention of an algorithm which plays the market by picking up on indications of fear and panic. The story begins when his apparently impregnable house is broken into in the middle of the night. He has a history of mental illness and as the sinister events pile up it is not clear whether he is in the throes of a breakdown or if someone – or something – is out to get him. It won’t be giving too much away to say that he has created a monster and it’s getting out of control. This is a modern Gothic novel and Harris admits as much by quoting from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein at the beginning of the first chapter. The narrative rips along and the description of the meltdown of the financial market is all too plausible. Harris has done his research and I did feel – at least for a while – that I understood something of how the market and hedge funds in particular work. It’s a story of hubris, of human beings overreaching themselves, and though it’s as old as Prometheus, Harris’s is a fresh and chilling take on it.