The back cover describes Kate Taylor’s A Man in Uniform as a “book deeply engaging for readers of mysteries as well as upmarket historical fiction.” This assessment is absolutely correct. A Man in Uniform retells some of the repercussions of the Dreyfus affair, an infamous real-life incident of treason and intrigue that incarcerated an innocent man for more than a decade. Despite ongoing indications that Captain Dreyfus was blameless, he spent nearly five of those years in solitary confinement on notorious Devil’s Island in French Guiana. Meanwhile, his supporters were working hard to uncover suppressed evidence, expose forged documents, seek the identity of the real spy, and most importantly, have the Dreyfus conviction overturned. Divisive headlines and political posturing about the affair scandalized French society and military life in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth. Even today, the affair is a touchstone of justice gone awry.
A Man in Uniform follows the efforts of a lawyer hired to find evidence supporting the convicted man’s innocence. The lawyer, Francois Dubon, uncovers a surprising array of missing testimony, falsified documents, and government duplicity. Since this is a fictional representation, some of the pertinent historic details are missing and the public outcry by such luminaries as Emile Zola is omitted. Rather, the book focuses on Dubon’s own friends and family and on his relationships with other people involved in the affair. Dubon moves back and forth between various guises, play-acting himself in the drama that unfolds. Effectively, this is his story, not Captain Dreyfus’s.
It is difficult to write about A Man in Uniform without giving away too much of the plot. Part of the pleasure in reading this book comes as the reader unpacks unexpected layers of conspiracies and fraud. Determining exactly who is on exactly which side of the affair is part of the mystery at hand. Suffice to say, you’ll be surprised.
As intriguing as the mystery is Taylor’s subtle analysis of how public opinion shifts and sways. Clearly the captain’s conviction lacked credence. Someone was spying, but it probably wasn’t Dreyfus. The government needed a scapegoat; officials were unwilling to admit they had made a mistake. A Man in Uniform raises pertinent questions about the extent to which patriotism overrides justice. Did it? Should it? The novel also ponders the Jewish issue. Was Dreyfus’s religion the real reason for his lengthy and cruel incarceration?
Such questions push the reader to think outside the confines of the story. Finally, however, A Man in Uniform’s main emphasis is the narration of Dubon’s fictional involvement in the affair, not to answer unanswerable questions. Dubon is a likeable man, simultaneously straight-forward and complex. Obviously flawed, he’s nonetheless humane. A French Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe or Lew Archer, perhaps, caught up in a powerful historic conundrum. And the denouement of his moment on the stage is perfect. -A.R.