An Officer and A Spy
By Robert Harris. (Alfred A. Knopf, 429 pages, $27.95.)
Historical fiction has proved to be the graveyard of many a talented writer, but for Robert Harris it is an especially demanding genre that he has mastered with seemingly effortless finesse. Here, the author of the bestselling “Fatherland,” set in World War II, has given us a well written and deeply researched portrait of the Dreyfus Affair, the scandal that unmasked the virulent anti-Semitism of late-19th-century France and sowed the seeds of repugnance that eventually brought down the aristocratic dominance of the French military.
Not only was the evidence of espionage against Capt. Alfred Dreyfus entirely manufactured, but the real culprit — Maj. Ferdinand Esterhazy, who betrayed his country for money to pay off gambling debts and support his mistress — was protected by senior officers of equally august pedigree. Harris tells this sordid but engrossing tale from the standpoint of Col. Georges Picquart, the enigmatic spymaster who initially helped arrest Dreyfus but then became convinced of his innocence.
Since this is belle epoque France, there is no shortage of fascinating, outrageous and quixotic characters. What an engaging pastiche! Harris carries off the story with aplomb and understatement, weaving a thriller (and it is exactly that) that is all the more memorable for the lessons it serves on the nature of loyalty and greed, and the depths — and nobility — of human suffering. An absolutely splendid book!
MICHAEL J. BONAFIELD
By Maeve Binchy. (Alfred A. Knopf, 368 pages, $26.95.)
Irish writer Maeve Binchy was prolific before her death in 2012, and she has proved so afterward, as well. Two years ago her first posthumous novel, “A Week in Winter,” was published, and now we see her first posthumous collection of stories. All of the frothy tales in “Chestnut Street” center on one Dublin street. Binchy had worked on these pieces over many years, envisioning a novel of linked stories, but these are stand-alone pieces, linked only by geography and by Binchy’s own great optimism and cheer.
The stories are not great, but they are sweet and you know they’re going to end well, which can be a comfort. Careers are figured out; long-standing grudges are settled; love conquers all. Still, Binchy was a realist, and she had a great affection for people of all kinds, and a great understanding of human behavior, all of which saves these stories from the saccharine. A good collection to read when you are tired, or fluish, or blue.