From the Publisher
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
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
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
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.
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
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."
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?
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"
3. What is the meaning of "truth" for Dubon? In the context of
his social values? In the context of his
4. Discuss the betrayals within the Dubon marriage. Are some
worse than others? Could it be described as a happy marriage,
5. Discuss the choices made by Geneviève, Madeleine and Madame
6. Discuss the character of Masson. What made him the man he
7. What role does the French mass media have on the unfolding of
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?