The year is 1897 and France stands at the threshold of the tumultuous 20th century. Still smarting from the losses of the Franco-Prussian war, the army sees traitors under every bed while the government fears both the Germans and the anarchists. Socialists and monarchists, Republicans and conservatives argue bitterly over the future of the nation while a new mass media has emerged with rival political newspapers to fan the flames of conflict.
Cheerfully oblivious to the partisan turmoil is bourgeois lawyer François Dubon. Once a bit of a radical himself, he has artfully constructed a well-ordered existence running a genteel law firm, inherited from his father. He is married to Geneviève, an aristocratic wife from a celebrated military family, with whom he shares a young son and a comfortable, if passionless, marriage. For passion, he has his generous mistress Madeleine, who expects his company promptly at five o’clock daily and is prettily piqued if he is late. Then it’s home to oblige his wife with his presence at dinner and at their myriad social engagements. It is a good life.
But Dubon’s complacent existence is shattered when a mysterious widow arrives at his office. The beguiling Madame Duhamel entreats him to save a dear friend’s innocent husband, an army captain by the name of Dreyfus who has been convicted as a spy. The widow’s charms awaken his long-dormant radical streak, and Dubon agrees.
Needing evidence to clear Dreyfus, Dubon pays a visit to the Statistical Section, a secretive bureau that he discovers is the seat of French espionage. Wearing his brother-in-law’s military uniform in the hopes of blending in, Dubon gets more than he bargained for when mistaken for a temporary clerk. He soon finds himself spying on the spies, tantalizingly close to the documents that he’s increasingly certain were forged to incriminate Dreyfus.
Dubon begins to live a double life in order to crack this case, employing his affable demeanour to masquerade as a military intelligence officer by day, while by night he still frequents the high-society parties where the chattering class is much preoccupied with the Dreyfus Affair. The trouble is, Dubon can no longer avert his gaze from the ugliness that lurks beneath French society’s veneer of civility. He comes to realize, at some personal jeopardy, that nobody is quite as they seem when power is at stake.
The real-life Dreyfus affair was a seismic event in French history, exposing latent tyranny within its government and fierce anti-Semitism at all levels of society. With elegance, humour and keen perception, Kate Taylor brilliantly mines this rich source material in her page-turning historical spy novel, demonstrating how brittle a society’s standards of justice and civility can be, in times of national panic.