Robert Harris: An Officer and a Spy

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Georges Picquart is a loyal Army man, having been in service for many years he has worked his way through the ranks and is based with General Staff in Paris. In 1895 he witnessed the end of the Dreyfus trial which results in a man sentenced to imprisonment on Devil’s Island for selling secrets to the Germans. Picquart is transferred to military intelligence and, in the course of his espionage role, he realises that Dreyfus is innocent and that a cover up has taken place.

The story of the Dreyfus case is well-known, how a paranoid military discovered that information was being passed to the Germans and that Dreyfus was a suitable scapegoat, that Dreyfus was also Jewish helped fuel anti-Semitism in France. In reality Dreyfus was innocent and a group of supporters worked hard to try to prove this. Picquart was central to this and the book focuses on him rather than Emile Zola (‘J’accuse…’) or Georges Clemenceau.

What Harris has done is take a real-life story and partially fictionalise it unlike many of his previous books. He states that ‘none of the characters… is wholly fictional’ and that ‘almost all of what occurs…actually happened’ – he has filled in with a fictional narrative. it is that that makes this book so special. Harris is an excellent writer of commercial and accessible thrillers, applying that talent to a real story means that rather than become a factual book about Picquart’s role in the Dreyfus Affair, this becomes an exciting thriller that is actually based in fact.

Ken Follett: Fall of giants

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Fall of Giants follows the fortunes of a series of families before, during and in the aftermath of the Great War. Spanning Europe and the US the characters include: the Williams family of South Wales, miners and political activists; Earl Fitzpatrick, an English aristocrat, his wife Princess Bea, a Russian nobel, and his sister Maud, a feminist radical; the Von Ulrichs, a landed German family; the Peshkovs from Petrograd, Lev who emigrates to the US and Grigori, who is involved in the Bolshevik revolution; and Gus Dewar, a US senator’s son who works for Woodrow Wilson.

Having thoroughly enjoyed Follett’s earlier works set in the Middle Ages I picked this up as much of the same. So it proved. Follett is a skilled writer who does not aim for high literary art but certainly knows how to entertain. More importantly he links genuine portrayal of character with excellent research into the history. Instead of focusing at length on trench warfare this book looks at other areas such as the home front politics, the intelligence service and in most depth the Russian revolution, the counter revolution and Britain’s role in the final defeat of the White Army.

Follett is about to publish the third part of this trilogy so I’d better get on and read the next instalment soon!

Ferdinand von Schirach: The Collini Case

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Caspar Leinen is a newly qualified attorney who takes a call to be a public defender in a case one evening. An italian has murdered an old man in a luxurious hotel in Berlin, seemingly in cold blood. A day after taking the case Caspar discovers that the victim was the grandfather of an old school-friend whom he knew well in his youth.

The case seems open and shut, the perpetrator does not deny the crime but someone seems to want the case ended quickly. Caspar is offered a huge professional opportunity if he will just let the trial run its course. Something needs hiding and when it is uncovered it leads to a legal dilemma that lies at centre of modern Germany and its post-war rehabilitation.

This is a short book that does not take time to read as it bounces along quickly. The writing is spare, there are few long descriptive sections and the general plot line is easy to guess. However its truncated nature is a real asset as it makes one take notice of the actual plot and the fill in the gaps – revenge by an individual and guilt of a nation are powerful narrative devices and this is a wonderful book.

Dan Jones: The Plantagenets

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Covering 250 years of English monarchy in 600 pages was always going to be a challenge. With eight reigns to cover, two civil wars and huge changes to society, Dan Jones set himself a real task but this book is a complete triumph. Beginning with the events leading to the ascension of Henry II – the wreck of the White Ship and the resulting wars of succession between Stephen and Matilda – the book charts the ups and downs of volatile ruling family.

I have actually read biographies of all the Plantagenet kings with the exception of Henry III and this work draws on a wide variety of sources including those books plus a good selection of primary sources. What sets this book apart is the quality of the writing. Jones has a really engaging style which doesn’t get bogged down in quoting innumerable sources and which doesn’t offer a partisan viewpoint. He beds the actions and decisions within the context of the society of the time. Kings were expected to show their power and prowess by war, yet war was expensive and that brought conflict with both the people and, over time, Parliament. The context of the wars with both France and Scotland is explained and so are the antecedents of the Cousins War. That will form the basis of Jones’ next book which I am eager anticipating.