An Officer and a Spy

Most readers have heard of the Dreyfus Affair, the miscarriage of justice that rocked France in the 1890s, but know little about it. This novel, based closely on the historical account, brings it alive in a manner that explains its historical significance even as it engages the reader in a vivid portrait of one of history's greatest whistle-blowers. He's Georges Picquart, a French army officer who initially played a role in arresting Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer, for passing secrets to the Germans, but later uncovered evidence that in fact the traitor had been someone else. The heart of this compelling novel is his effort to free Dreyfus from terribly harsh imprisonment on Devil's Island. The army command, however, is determined to quash Picquart's effort, and at various times he is imprisoned, posted to North Africa, and ordered on a certain-death mission (he wisely disobeys the order). All of this is set against the backdrop of rampant antisemitism and a nearly unanimous popular belief that Dreyfus is a traitor—until Picquart enlists others in his cause, most notably the novelist Émile Zola, whose broadside “J'Accuse!” sets the stage for the mass opposition that eventually leads to Dreyfus' exoneration.