Book Review

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An Officer and a Spy, by Robert Harris

This is a weighty tome, running to 608 pages and, ordinarily, I might be deterred by this, but seeing the name of Robert Harris on the cover was all the incentive I needed to convince me to read it, having read a few of his books before now. Also, I was curious to discover how well he would handle a real historical situation, although he is no stranger to setting fiction in different time periods; this book concerns l’Affaire Dreyfus, or The Dreyfus Case, and I had vague recollections of having to apply myself to it in History lessons at school but hitherto, I wouldn’t have been able to present a cogent synopsis of the events that transpired. Given that these events actually happened, Harris’s freedom to create a fictional narrative was necessarily somewhat constrained, but he tells the story from the point of view of a fellow army officer, Marie-Georges Picquart, previously professor of topography at the École Militaire, now deputy to the head of the Third Department of the War Ministry (Operations & Training), who soon after Dreyfus’s conviction becomes promoted to Head of the Second Department, the Statistical Section, otherwise known as Intelligence; this arrangement had been in operation since Napoleon’s time.

Before his public military degradation (an essential part of his punishment, involving the removal of all his regimental uniform decorations & the ceremonial breaking of his sabre, in front of the first military parade of the Paris garrison) Dreyfus allegedly confessed to the captain guarding him that he did indeed pass documents to the Germans, but Picquart decides this is unreliable, which is helpful for him, as he had just given a verbal report to the Minister of War that Dreyfus continued to protest his innocence at the parade, in contravention of normal custom. Alfred Dreyfus, captain of the 14th Artillery Regiment, certified General Staff Officer & probationer of the army’s General Staff, was found guilty of delivering to a foreign power or to its agents in Paris in 1894 a certain number of secret and confidential documents concerning national defence; he was a Jew from Mulhouse, which was in the disputed Alsace Lorraine territory, now part of Germany, following the humiliating defeat by Germany in the 1870 Franco-German war; he also spoke with a slight, but discernible German accent, which was another thing, in addition to being identifiably Jewish, which counted against him. Unfortunately, at that time, institutional anti-Semitism was casually accepted as an attitude by the majority of the population, including Picquart himself.

In addition to the humiliation of the military degradation, Dreyfus’s penalty also included discharge from the army and deportation to a fortified enclosure for life: this was Devil’s Island, 15km from the coast of the penal colony at Cayenne (French Guiana, on the north east coast of South America); the island was reopened especially for Dreyfus, although there were many who called for the death penalty for what they considered to be a heinous crime, particularly in that time of heightened tension between France & Germany. It was once Picquart became established in his position as head of the Second Department that his suspicion begins to grow that Dreyfus has, indeed, been falsely accused, and that a despicable miscarriage of justice has occurred, especially when he learns that secrets are still being passed to the Germans so, albeit somewhat unwillingly at first, he makes it his mission to discover the truth, even if that means that Dreyfus is innocent; unfortunately, in the course of his investigations, he encounters obfuscation, opposition, and outright hostility from his superiors, but also, which proves to be more dangerous, for his career and even, potentially, his life, from his own close colleagues. He suffers many tribulations, threats, and even murder attempts during the course of the narrative, but he proves to be strong enough to survive them all, and the help he receives from a few valued friends, and later associates, a few of whom are as illustrious as the author Victor Hugo, whose publication J’Accuse eventually proves to be powerfully influential, contributes to his eventual success.

This is not to spoil the plot: the story is known, and can easily be researched, but where Harris succeeds is in weaving a plausible narrative for the character of Picquart. Harris himself says at the beginning of the book:

None of the characters in the pages that follow, not even the most minor, is wholly fictional, and almost all of what occurs, at least in some form, actually happened in real life. Naturally, however, in order to turn history into a novel, I have been obliged to simplify, to cut out some figures entirely, to dramatise, and to invent many personal details. In particular, Georges Picquart never wrote a secret account of the Dreyfus affair; nor did he place it in a bank vault in Geneva with instructions that it should remain sealed until a century after his death. But a novelist can imagine otherwise.

Robert Harris

I can highly recommend this book, and I don’t think you need to be an aficionado of history to be able to appreciate it: it’s a thumping good story, including a criminal conspiracy (which never seem to go out of fashion!) and it’s always good to be able to read a story which has any sort of resolution, especially a positive one. The paperback I read was published in 2014 by Arrow Books, London [part of the Penguin Random House Group], ISBN 978-0-09958-088-1.

Chris Dolley

Wilfred Books is very pleased to showcase the prolific and highly successful author, Chris Dolley, in the first of an occasional series of blogs from established authors, at whatever stage in their writing careers. Chris’s background is in technology, but this post is something of a privileged exclusive, because it is, in visual terms, an ‘out-take’ from one of his books, which details a rather traumatic episode in his life; so read on and share vicariously in his adventure!

1916734_326706036129_648735_nChris Dolley is a New York Times bestselling author. French Fried is about his move to France – which culminated in his identity being stolen and life savings disappearing. Abandoned by the police forces of four countries who all insisted the crime belonged in someone else’s jurisdiction, he had to solve the case himself. Which he did, but unlike fictional detectives, he had an 80 year-old mother-in-law and an excitable puppy who insisted they came along if he was going anywhere interesting – like a stakeout. Here’s Chris:

When writing a book you often have difficult decisions to make when it comes to the final edits. So it was when I wrote French Fried: One man’s move to France with too many animals and an identity thief. Reading though the book, I felt that it took too long to get to the identity theft part of the book and decided to cut one of the chapters – which was a shame as it contained some of my favourite scenes. Here’s one of them: The Optician, the Receptionist, and the Skirting Board.

In the month before we moved to France we decided to have a thorough check up – opticians, dentists, doctors, the lot. It seemed a sensible course of action when exchanging a largely free health service for something entirely unknown.

Unfortunately we caught the optician on a bad day.

I thought the receptionist’s behaviour somewhat strange. Asking the customer if they really wanted to go through with their appointment is not normal front desk procedure.

“He is a locum,” the receptionist pressed. “Not the usual optician. You can re-book if you want.”

She did everything but beg us to run for our lives. But we were not to be swayed, our eyes needed checking and God knows when we’d be able to master enough of the French alphabet to risk an examination in France.

Shelagh went in first – half expecting to see a Transylvanian hunchback – but instead was met by a perfectly normal optician in his mid-thirties. A perception that persisted for several minutes – that is until she let slip the reason for her appointment – our imminent emigration to France.

“France!” he spluttered. “Don’t talk to me about France!”

There then followed a potted life history of an optician’s sorry slip down life’s ladder. And very sorry it was. He’d had his own practice – a thriving one – and then exchanged it all for an even larger one in France. He’d had several shops, a new life, boundless possibilities.

And then lost it all.

Cheated by banks and business partners and I think half of the French population during the final stages, he’d sunk into a morass of debt and had to sell up and come home. Not that there’d been much left to sell. He’d even lost money on his house. His purchasers and the notaire added to the long list of French nationals who’d cheated, connived and generally done him wrong.

This was not a happy optician.

And now he was home again trying to rebuild a shattered life. Filling in for opticians who could afford to go off on holiday – probably to France.

Shelagh thought it best to steer the conversation as far away from France as possible at that point. Having your eyes probed by a man muttering to himself about Gallic conspiracies is not generally seen as a good thing.

Neither it appeared was asking for a sight test for glasses while wearing contact lenses.

“Don’t you want a test for contact lenses?” he asked.

“Well, I did. But the receptionist said you only did glasses.”

“She what!”

And then he was off again. Half of Devon added to the Gallic conspiracy.

“I can do contact lenses!” he exclaimed in a mixture of disbelief and rising indignation. Was the whole world against him? “I do contacts! I do glasses. I do the lot! I’m an optician!”

And then a lot of muttering. Luckily he hadn’t been in France long enough to pick up the spitting and ritual grinding of the spittle into the carpet.

But he wasn’t far off.

“Why did she say that?” he continued to no-one in particular, walking off into the far corner of the consulting room, pushing his hands through his hair and looking one step away from curling up into a ball against the skirting board.

Never a good sign for an optician.

It was about at this point that the phone rang in reception. I was sitting nearby and the caller had a loud voice, so I heard most of what followed.

“Is he all right?” a woman’s voice began worriedly.

“I think so. So far, anyway,” came the reply in hushed conspiratorial tones and nervous looks towards the consulting room door.

“He hasn’t…” The voice hung in an open question mark, unable to frame the terrible conclusion to the question. What hadn’t he? I inclined an ear closer to the conversation, shuffled to the edge of the chair. What was happening behind that door?

“No,” said the receptionist, shaking her head. “Well, not yet anyway.”

We both cast anxious looks towards the door.

“I’m sure he’ll be all right,” continued the receptionist in a voice that underlined the fact that she was convinced of the exact opposite.

Back inside the consulting room a depressed locum fought his way back from the siren call of the skirting board and cast a veneer of professionalism over his sinking spirits. He would continue with the sight test. He was a professional. Whatever anyone else said.

When it was my turn, I walked in, settled down in the chair, smiled a lot and cast beams of well being and general bonhomie in all directions. I was taking no chances.

“And what can I do for you?” he started brightly.

“Well, I’m about to move to France…”

French Fried is available from Amazon at the following link:
https://www.amazon.co.uk/French-Fried-France-animals-identity-ebook/dp/B003UBTVSI/.