A Man in Uniform
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.
What’s Behind A Man in Uniform
By Kate Taylor
Before every political scandal acquired the suffix “Gate,” there were Affairs. The Profumo Affair. The Gouzenko Affair. The Dreyfus Affair. When I was a child these tales of spies and showgirls sounded more interesting than the budgets and battles taught in history class, although I hadn’t a clue what the exotically named events really involved. At university, I did study the Dreyfus Affair and found the actual story of the French army captain wrongfully accused of spying for the Germans as intriguing as the shadowy outline. It featured a detective story worthy of le Carré and an ironic retort to the “great men” theory of history: the innocent Dreyfus, so shamelessly persecuted by a government that would not admit it had the wrong man, was an unremarkable soldier who remade French society despite himself.
I investigated the affair further when I was writing my first novel, Mme Proust and the Kosher Kitchen, because the debate over his guilt or innocence divided the family of novelist Marcel Proust just as it so bitterly divided France. Then I had the idea that the Dreyfus Affair might form the spine of a second novel, a mystery story, not a whodunit so much as how-do-you-prove-he-didn’t-do-it. Its action would revolve around the paper chase that ultimately absolved the imprisoned Dreyfus; its fictional hero would be an equally unremarkable man, a complacent lawyer transformed by the pursuit of justice.
At first, I thought this was a story within a story; I also wanted to a write a 20th-century novel about a professor and a student who were attempting to write a mystery themselves. The idea was that my novel would alternate between the Dreyfus story and a modern love story, but as I began to plan this two-headed monster, I realized the historical mystery had to be able to stand on its own, as engrossing as any thriller. So, I began to write the novel that would become A Man in Uniform and gradually the modern frame in which I had planned to display it fell away as I became engrossed in the mindbending intricacies of plotting a genuine detective story.
I used an old-fashioned system – file cards – to keep track of my different plot lines, which had burgeoned from five to seven by the end of my third draft. Perhaps the biggest addition was made in the second draft when, realizing the beginning was moving too slowly, I decided a dead body had better appear by the end of Chapter 2. The only problem was that I had no idea who the body belonged to nor why it was dead!
Working on the book was sometimes a torturous process, and during the years I was writing A Man in Uniform, stories began to appear in the newspapers about the plight of terrorism suspects held without charges at Guantanamo or deported to countries that practise torture. I had not intended to write anything resembling a political novel, but the contemporary resonances became stronger and stronger as I wrote. The lessons in human rights and political responsibility that the Dreyfus Affair can still teach proved inescapable.
But most of all, writing A Man in Uniform was great fun as I juggled my plot lines and my history books. Now I eagerly anticipate leaving my computer and getting out to meet booksellers and readers.
I hope you enjoy reading A Man in Uniform.
From the Hardcover edition.
READ AN EXCERPT
Maître Dubon lifted his gaze from Madeleine’s right breast, which was peeking out tantalizingly from under a crisp white sheet, and let it travel slowly down the bed, admiring as he did so how the draped cotton clung to her body in some places and obscured it in others. He...
1. Dreyfus’s experience on Devil’s Island is only described at the opening and close of the novel. What was the effect of these passages on your reading experience? Did anything strike you about the tone? What did these passages add to the story overall?
2. How did you feel about Dubon as a man? How...
"Taylor is an aficionado of belle époque France. [Her] twisting plot is rich in romance and disturbing in its implications about the fragility of human rights." —Elle Magazine
"An engrossing mystery that neatly bridges literary and popular fiction. . . . Taylor deftly draws out the delicate balance between civil liberties and national security." —Chatelaine
"An engaging novel, one that will hopefully lead its readers to . . . read more about a fascinating period in Western history." —The Chronicle-Journal
"The Dreyfus Affair spurs a rollicking novel. . . . The book moves along at such an admirable clip that it’s hard to believe it won’t carry on without you if you dare put it down." —Toronto Star
"Taylor demonstrates tremendous talent for breathing life into the people and places of bygone times.... Late 19th-century Paris comes vividly to life in her capable hands as she perfectly captures the social conventions, turns of phrase, wardrobe stylings and modes of transportation and communication that characterized that era." —Winnipeg Free Press
"Kate Taylor’s new novel, inspired by the Dreyfus affair, is a bracing reminder that we dare not have blind faith in our leaders to defend our most cherished rights and freedoms. . . . Taylor's engaging novel, in creating a detailed historical world, reminds us of that ever-present danger. One of the strengths of this historical novel is the characterization of Dubon. His reticence to become involved with Dreyfus, and the way he is nevertheless irretrievably drawn into the affair by his own desires and dormant ideals, is handled with supreme skill." —The Globe and Mail
"A gripping read that is both suspenseful and highly readable." —The Sun Times (Owen Sound)
"Author Kate Taylor's portrait of honor and deception in turn-of-the-century Paris is alluring and suspenseful, an even greater testament to her skills as a writer when one considers that she draws her story from France's most notorious political scandal. . . . The charm of Taylor's novel lies in her seemingly effortless prose and plotting—and her ability to make room for touches of subtle humor." —ABC News
From the Hardcover edition.