by Stephen Tall on November 20, 2013
An Officer and a Spy, Robert Harris
What happens if the state believes you guilty of a crime and stretches the law to ensure your conviction? Using secret evidence you can’t challenge in a secret court where judges are inclined to give the state the benefit of the doubt. What happens if the only way you can establish your innocence is to take the state to court? But it then uses all the resources at its disposal to cover up its initial mistake ‘for the greater good’.
This is the story of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish soldier fitted up by the French government and army in 1895 because he looked like an enemy of the state and made a convenient villain. It’s told through the eyes of Colonel Georges Picquart, a man who unwittingly connived at his fitting up but came to regret his complicity and put his career (and life) on the line to right a wrong.
I’m a fan of Robert Harris’s political thrillers, but this is probably his best yet. First, because he sustains a suspenseful 500-page novelisation while sticking closely to the known facts of a notorious story of which most of us know little more than the ending – I was genuinely gripped to the final page. And secondly, because of the contemporary resonance as our government extends secret justice in the name of protecting the state. The story may be more than a century old, but the theme endures: power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.