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Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada
I am a lawyer in Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada who enjoys reading, especially mysteries. Since 2000 I have been writing personal book reviews. This blog includes my reviews, information on and interviews with authors and descriptions of mystery bookstores I have visited. I strive to review all Saskatchewan mysteries. Other Canadian mysteries are listed under the Rest of Canada. As a lawyer I am always interested in legal mysteries. I have a separate page for legal mysteries. Occasionally my reviews of legal mysteries comment on the legal reality of the mystery. You can follow the progression of my favourite authors with up to 15 reviews. Each year I select my favourites in "Bill's Best of ----". As well as current reviews I am posting reviews from 2000 to 2011. Below my most recent couple of posts are the posts of Saskatchewan mysteries I have reviewed alphabetically by author. If you only want a sentence or two description of the book and my recommendation when deciding whether to read the book look at the bold portion of the review. If you would like to email me the link to my email is on the profile page.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris

An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris – A retelling of the Dreyfus Affair, a huge scandal, which occurred at the end of the 19th Century in France. It was a powerful example, of which many have subsequently occurred, of an unsuccessful coverup being a more important story than the original actions under investigation.

What makes the book new is the story being told through Georges Picquart, a stalwart French officer whose family left Alsace after France lost the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. In the mid-1990’s he is an ambitious 40 year old major, a career officer, looking to become a general.

While devoted to the army he is not a sycophant. Ordered to observe and report on the Drefyus trial he questions the strength of the case. Special measures are undertaken by the army through provision of a secret dossier to the court martial court to ensure conviction. Picquart delivers the file to the judges. How the frame-up unravels provides the plot.

As the historical story is well known I will not venture into details. What I want to discuss is the conduct of the legal proceedings.

The military of nations around the world have zealously maintained separate judicial systems to try soldiers, sailors and air force personnel charged with offences. As with most organizations they believe they can best understand the evidence and the procedures involved in the cases. Normally military cases are swifter to reach trials than civil proceedings. While militaries are never going to cede jurisdiction for military justice to civil courts the Dreyfus Affair shows the weaknesses when a justice system is not independent.

In France of the late 19th Century courts martial were public events. Having trials open to the public is one of the fundamental guarantees that justice will be done as it is seen to be done.

I appreciate some evidence in proceedings against alleged spies must remain confidential form the public but, if it cannot be tested by review and questioning from counsel for the defence, it is prone to error.

With Dreyfus, the secret file neither Dreyfus nor his lawyer saw at his trial, contained the pivotal evidence. At the same time it proved totally unreliable when eventually it was carefully scrutinized.

Once the army concluded its “honour” would be besmirched if Dreyfus was acquitted all sense of justice was lost. It is hard to admit mistakes. It is worse in affairs of national security to seek a scapegoat.

Had that file been subject to the same rigorous scrutiny that other evidence received it would have been clear that there was a spy in the French army who was not Dreyfus. Even a basic investigation would have revealed it was “Count” (the title is claimed not real) Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy.

Once a wrongful conviction had been obtained the army sought to cover up its misdeeds.

Reviews and re-trials were within the French military systems. The command of the French army committed itself to a lie to try to maintain its “honour” for a wrongful conviction and cover-up. No military judicial system was going to find Dreyfus not guilty.

When the case was first reviewed in civil courts they were caught by the principle that appellate courts must accept findings of facts by lower courts if there is some evidence to support them.

With military judges finding facts against Dreyfus appeals were doomed.

Yet Picquart, who never liked Dreyfus and had little regard for Jews, and other Dreyfusards, most famously Emile Zola, and dedicated lawyers created a record that ultimately freed Dreyfus when set out in French parliamentary proceedings.

Harris casts Picquart in the role of reluctant sleuth who, while in command of the French “Statistical Section” (Secret Service), to his surprise and dismay determines there was a miscarriage of justice. Picquart is a genuine man of honour who is not prepared to acquiesce to injustice. Equally important he places the security of the nation, finding the real spy, above the “honour” of the army.

In an earlier non-fiction book, Selling Hitler, Harris vividly told the story of how fake Hitler diaries were accepted as genuine because Stern magazine and historians wanted them to be real.

In An Officer and a Gentleman he sets out how the French Army and its judicial system accepted forged and other undependable evidence as it wanted Dreyfus, a Jew, to be the spy.

Harris has written an excellent book. He has a talent for turning historic events into good fiction. An Officer and a Spy reminds me of how he created a good book, Enigma, on the British breaking of German codes during WW II.

Based on my previous reading of a non-fiction account of the Dreyfus Affair I believe and appreciate that Harris was factual in his exploration of the events set out in An Officer and a Spy. He accepts the facts are strong enough on their own rather than trying to sensationalize them further in his retelling. An Officer and a Spy is a very good book. (Sept. 30/14)


  1. Bill - This does sound like an interesting book. And I found your discussion of the legal aspects of the Dreyfus case very interesting too. It is hard I think to strike a balance between preserving confidential military information for security reasons, and ensuring that evidence used in a case undergoes appropriate scrutiny. As you say, if the evidence is not really examined, it's (sometimes tragically) too easy to accept it as genuine, whether it is or isn't.

    1. Margot: Thanks for the comment. I say security can only be gained when the truth is determined. Secrecy is the enemy of truth.

  2. This sounds like an excellent book. The Dreyfus case was a colossal miscarriage of justice, and an example of anti-Semitism in the extreme.

    I read a passage from the book which related a demonstration of 20,000 in France yelling, "Kill the Jew." I was rather taken aback at the level of bigotry here, which is why I'm not sure about reading the book. But I appreciate that the author researched for it and wrote as good and thorough book as he has.

    1. Kathy D.: Thanks for the comment. It was discouraging to read of the depth on Anti-Semitism in France. Many assumed guilt because Dreyfus was Jewish. Harris does not shy from the prejudices of the time. I wonder if Esterhazy had been Jewish and Dreyfus non-Jewish if events would have been different.

  3. I shared your liking for this book when I read it: and was interested in the author comments, where he says that almost everything in the book is factual. I enjoyed your legal take on it, bearing out what I suspected to be true about the outrageousness of the legal process - I am glad you were able to confirm it with your expertise.

    1. Moira: Thanks for the comment. Yet another example where truth inspires great fiction.

  4. I lost interest when I came across "kitsch" on the first page, I'm afraid. I couldn't accept a nineteenth century French officer who said "kitsch".
    The level of anti-Semitism was frightening: not just in France. Even after the truth was established, for example, G.K. Chesterton insisted Dreyfus was somehow guilty. See this Father Brown story, for example: http://www.ccel.org/c/chesterton/wisdom/drhirsch.html

  5. Roger: Thanks for the comment.

    "Kitsch" did not slow me down. An occasional misplaced word does not bother me.

    I was equally struck by the virulent anti-Semitism.

  6. Another book I am looking forward to reading. Thanks for this review and I will come back and re-read when I have read my copy.

    1. TracyK: Thanks for the comment. It is a book that will make you think.

  7. I would love to read this book, but the virulent anti-Semitism, quite true then, and unfortunately, having reared its ugly head during the U.S. elections, would probably prevent me from doing so.
    My grandparents fled anti-Semitic pogroms in 1907 Russia, and I'm not anxious to read about more real anti-Semitism. It dawns on me that they fled not that long after the Dreyfus Affair took place in France.