Generally speaking, I am not much of a spy mystery lover. They tend to frustrate me with their convoluted development of the story. On the other hand, I love to read about history and historical fiction. So Harris’ An Officer and a Spy had a huge challenge to convince me it was worth reading — but not an impossible one. So, I must say that Harris accomplished it handily. It also helped that I listened to the audio book — a presentation that I simply cannot praise enough. David Rintoul is absolutely a fantastic narrator that really pulls the reader, in even further than the story.
It is the characterizations that really make this story. Harris develops them so fully and engrossingly as to make it almost impossible to not get pulled in. They are well portrayed in all their strengths and weaknesses. There are those you love to hate, those you hate to love and those that leave you attached beyond reason — even in their human frailty. George Picquart is one of those characters that startlingly real because he isn’t idealized. His rabid commitment to truth and morality are markedly offset by his indifference to the man he goes to such lengths to try to save and his complete disregard of morality in respect to his willingness to enter into an affair with a married woman. His completely naiveté and complete faith in the incorruptibility is both endearing as well as tragic — as he struggles to come to terms with the fact that the army he loves and serves so faithful is anything but faithful to him.
The convoluted presentation of the back story and the extreme depth of all the upper echelons of the military general staff is amazing. Not only does the reader come to appreciate the historical French military, but the fact that not much changes throughout the course of history, as well. For those that love conspiracy theories — this is a great book. But it is the authentic feel of the story that is what I appreciated the most. France, at the turn of the century, as it struggled to maintain military superiority in the face of factions that would ultimately come together to shape the first World War and threatened to tear the French nation apart; it is all developed in such a way as to bring a feel to this book, which allows the reader to live the story and not just read it. The constant power struggle between the German and French play the predominant role in this book, with the surrounding influences of the Italian and Russian nations as well. Even though this is historical fiction, Harris knows his history and does a great job of allowing the reader to enter into that past era and experience the varying power struggles that would ultimately culminate in “the war to end all wars.”
Another thing I like about Harris’ writing is his willingness to tell the story and not chase the happy ending. The book had the feel more of Les Miserable than an idealized presentation of the French nation. The story development is vast, with a lot going on. There are a lot of characters, as well as sub-plots. But Harris weaves it all together successfully, without losing the various threads. There isn’t anything left unfinished, even if there aren’t a lot of surprises involved.
I do admit that there are times that I wanted to shake Picquart and tell him to open his eyes about who was behind the whole mystery, since there was a lot of mystery about it from about the third or fourth chapter. But that was easily overlooked due to the enjoyably of the story as a whole. Sometimes it is difficult to keep all the character’s straight, mainly because there are so many of them. But this wasn’t frustrating enough to keep me from thoroughly enjoying the book.
Overall this is a book that I highly recommend — particularly the audio book format. I am really finicky about the audio books I listen to. A narrator can really make or break a book in that format. But this one was really made so much better through the narrator. A definite must!