Review: 'An Officer And A Spy'

Alan Cheuse reviews An Officer and a Spy, a novel by Robert Harris that revives the Dreyfus Affair.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Now a bit of historical fiction for you. It's the new book by novelist Robert Harris about the Dreyfus Affair that made headlines in the late 1890s and shook the French military to its core. The book is called "An Officer and a Spy." Alan Cheuse has our review.

ALAN CHEUSE, BYLINE: The case began when Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish military officer from eastern France, was tried and convicted of spying for the Germans and sentenced to life in a brutal and primitive French penal colony of Devil's Island. The case turned into a multi-year affair when observers both inside the army and among the general public took notice of what proved to be an enormous miscarriage of justice. The innocent Jewish officer at the center of the story, the melodramatic villain of a soldier who turns out to be the actual spy, the operatic military buffoons on the general's staff of the army, the crusading newspaper editors and lawyers, and famous novelist Emile Zola rising to the defense.

In "An Officer and a Spy," Robert Harris turns all these matters into the stuff of entertaining and intelligent historical fiction. He presents with great effect all this from the point of view of Colonel Georges Picquart, the newly promoted head of the statistical section. That's the French army's center of intelligence gathering. The story of Picquart's struggle to exonerate Dreyfus and bring the real spy to light is itself a long and deeply textured affair that will entertain and engage most general readers with an interest in espionage, politics, and justice.

By the end of it, Picquart confesses that he's come to see that thrillers may sometimes contain more truths than all of Monsieur Zola's social realism put together. At least while reading this engaging new historical spy and courtroom drama, you'll find some truth in that.

BLOCK: The novel is "An Officer and A Spy" by Robert Harris. Our reviewer is Alan Cheuse.

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