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Literature / An Officer and a Spy

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An Officer and a Spy is a 2013 Historical Fiction novel by Robert Harris.

It tells the story of the infamous Dreyfus Affair, the scandalous miscarriage of justice that rocked France around the turn of the 19th/20th centuries. It is told from the perspective of Col. Georges Picquart, an officer who was tangentially involved in the arrest of Captain Alfred Dreyfus on charges of treason and espionage on behalf of the Germans. After Dreyfus is convicted and sent off to Devil's Island, Picquart is promoted to head of Army intelligence. In that capacity, he soon discovers evidence that there is a second spy, Major Esterhazy, who is also passing information to the Germans. Picquart continues to investigate and, to his horror, uncovers more evidence indicating that Dreyfus was innocent and Esterhazy is the only spy. He then stumbles on to a massive coverup that extends to high levels of the French army and government—and those people aren't about to sit back and let Picquart expose them.

A film adaptation of the novel, directed by Roman Polański and starring Jean Dujardin as Picquart, was released in 2019. See also The Life of Émile Zola, an Academy Award-winning film that despite its name is really about the Dreyfus Affair (to which writer Émile Zola took part to defend Dreyfus).


  • The Alcatraz: Devil's Island, the remote penal colony that is reopened for the express purpose of housing Dreyfus. It's worse than Alcatraz.
  • Alternative Character Interpretation: Invoked in Picquart narration, when learning about Henry's suicide. Picquart wonders if Henry killed himself from remorse, or if he received the order to do it to make sure he wouldn't speak.
  • Based on a True Story: Pretty accurate, although Harris is careful to admit in the prologue that he used Artistic License.
  • Book Burning: Emile Zola's books are burned after he speaks out in defense of Dreyfus.
  • Book Ends: The book begins and ends with a meeting between a major and the Minister of War.
  • Call-Forward / It Will Never Catch On: Picquart is excited about the French alliance with Russia, saying that it will protect France in case France is attacked by Germany. His more skeptical brother-in-law asks about the reverse, the chance that the alliance could suck France into a war between Germany and Russia. Picquart dismisses that idea as ridiculous. That, of course, is exactly how France was sucked into World War I in 1914.
  • Calling the Cops on the FBI: Picquart escapes a Sûreté tail by hailing a beat cop and alerting him to the Sûreté agents.
  • Clear My Name: Captain Dreyfus feels strongly about this.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: Almost everyone is an antisemite, and indeed the fact that Dreyfus is Jewish played a big part to make him suspicious once the military started looking for a mole. Homophobia is common, too.
  • Driven to Suicide: Major Henry kills himself in his prison cell after admitting to forging the documents used against Dreyfus.
  • Foregone Conclusion: Anyone with the minimum knowledge about French History already know that Dreyfus wasn't the real mole and that his name was eventually cleared.
  • Frame-Up: It turns out the General Staff forged documents in order to incriminate Dreyfus.
  • The Handler: Major Henry is the handler for a prime source of intelligence, a cleaning woman who works in the German embassy.
  • High-Class Glass: Col. du Paty de Clam, an aristocrat and one of the more evil persons behind the Frame-Up of Dreyfus, sports one of these.
  • Historical Domain Character: Just about all of them. Picquart died from falling off a horse in 1914. Dreyfus served in World War I, seeing combat at Verdun.
  • Insignia Rip-Off Ritual: A formal ceremony, the "Degradation", in which Dreyfus is stripped of his military insignia and his sword is snapped in two. This is how the novel begins.
  • J'accuse!: Deals with the Trope Namer, no less. Émile Zola's open letter is a relief to Picquart, and a bombshell that blows the case wide open.
  • Just Following Orders: Major Henry's excuse when Picquart challenges him about his part in the frame-up of Dreyfus.
  • Leaning on the Fourth Wall: "Reality must be turned into a work of art, if you will", says Picquart to Zola.
  • Leave Behind a Pistol: The General Staff offers this to Dreyfus after he's arrested. Dreyfus angrily refuses and proclaims his innocence.
  • Miscarriage of Justice: One of the most notorious instances of this trope. Some shoddy investigative work leads the intelligence bureau to Dreyfus, and anti-Semitism seals the deal on his conviction. The French high command then desperately tries to cover its tracks, even after Major Esterhazy is revealed as the actual spy.
  • The Mole: Major Esterhazy is funding his dissolute lifestyle by passing information on to the Germans.
  • Open Secret: Georges is startled when his sister tells him that everyone knows about his affair with Pauline the married woman.
  • Present Tense Narrative: The whole novel is told in present tense, except for flashback sequences like Dreyfus's arrest and the degradation ritual. This likely emphasizes Picquart's confusion and paranoia as he unravels the coverup and discovers the truth.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Leclerc, Picquart's CO in Africa, who has little sympathy for the high command back in Paris and helps Picquart get back home to expose the cover-up.
  • Reassigned to Antarctica: Colonel Picquart is sent off to a hardship post in Africa after finding out the truth and refusing to play ball with his superiors.
  • Unable to Support a Wife: Col. Picquart cites this as a reason why he doesn't get married, when in fact he simply likes living alone.
  • Young Future Famous People: Harris makes sure to mention Col. du Paty de Clam's baby son Charles, who would grow up to be one of Les Collaborateurs and "Head of Jewish Affairs" for the Vichy government.