Why I Wrote This Book

Why I Wrote This Book

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 whose case remade French society in ways he would never have imagined.

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. In some ways, the political scandal felt very modern: For my generation of journalists, All the President’s Men was required reading. The machinations of the Dreyfus Affair reminded me powerfully of Watergate; it’s not the crime that will prove your undoing, it’s the cover-up. Intrigued, 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 intricacies of plotting a genuine detective story.

As a youth, I devoured detective fiction, first Agatha Christie, then Dorothy L. Sayers and Dick Francis, those effortless reads of the beach or the fireside. I discovered, however, that writing a novel driven almost entirely by plot is far from effortless. 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 to whom the body belonged nor why it was dead!

Working on the book was hugely enjoyable but also a prolonged 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 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. I discovered I was writing a contemporary novel despite myself.