Synopses & Reviews
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.
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.
About the Author
Kate Taylor is an award-winning novelist and an arts columnist at The Globe and Mail
The daughter of a Canadian diplomat, Taylor was born in France and raised in Ottawa and Europe. She studied history and art history at the University of Toronto, and completed a Masters in journalism at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario.
Taylor worked at the London Free Press and Hamilton Spectator before joining the copy desk at The Globe and Mail in 1989. She became an arts reporter at that paper in 1991 and served as The Globe’s authoritative and provocative theatre critic from 1995-2003, winning two Nathan Cohen Awards and a nomination for a National Newspaper Award. Since 2003, she has worked as a columnist, critic and feature writer in The Globe’s arts section, with a special interest in cultural policy. In 2009 Taylor was awarded the prestigious Atkinson Fellowship in Public Policy for a project entitled Maple Leaf Rag: Canadian Cultural Sovereignty in the Digital Age, examining how a national culture can survive the forces of digitization and globalization.
Taylor’s debut 2003 novel Mme Proust and the Kosher Kitchen was a national bestseller, winning the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Book (Canada-Caribbean region), The City of Toronto Book Award and the Canadian Jewish Book Award. A Man in Uniform is her second novel. She lives in Toronto with her husband and son.
Of her decision to set both novels in Paris, Taylor says:
“The experience of living in Paris and attending a French school as a teenager instilled in me a great affection for a beautiful city but also made me Canadian because, at a certain point, you have to choose where you belong. My first novel, Mme Proust and the Kosher Kitchen, was about the struggle to belong, about feeling torn between two worlds or two languages. It seems to me a very Canadian theme because we are a bilingual country and a country of immigrants. A Man in Uniform is set in Paris a little more coincidentally because the Dreyfus Affair happened to be an episode of French history that has always intrigued me. When I was researching my first novel I realized that it had the plot of a great detective novel.”
From the Hardcover edition.
Reading Group Guide
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 does he change as the novel progresses? In the context of his society, is he a “good” man?
3. What is the meaning of “truth” for Dubon? In the context of his social values? In the context of his relationships?
4. Discuss the betrayals within the Dubon marriage. Are some worse than others? Could it be described as a happy marriage, overall?
5. Discuss the choices made by Geneviève, Madeleine and Madame Duhamel.
6. Discuss the character of Masson. What made him the man he is?
7. What role does the French mass media have on the unfolding of this story?
8. When Dubon commends Madame Duhamel’s faithfulness to Dreyfus, she clarifies that she has been faithful to his cause, saying “It’s probably easier to hold on to abstract principles than to human beings. . . . People can be so unpredictable.” (p. 405) What do you think of these words? How does Dubon go on to elaborate on her sentiment, and do you agree?
9. What do you think will come of Dubon’s relationship with Madame Duhamel? Will they “come to an understanding” about her bill, as he suggests?
10. Discuss the symbolism of the beetle pestering Dreyfus at the opening and close of the novel.
11. What is the effect of the final words uttered by Dreyfus at the novel’s conclusion?
12. The Dreyfus Affair was a seminal event in the history of France, dividing families and friends, discussed ad nauseam at dinner parties and social gatherings. Can you think of any modern-day controversies that might compare?
13. Can you imagine A Man in Uniform as a film? How would you cast the various roles?