A Man In Uniform, by Kate Taylor

Review copy courtesy Random House Canada

Maitre Dubon is a Parisian lawyer, leading a comfortable, ordered life as the nineteenth century is approaching its close. Well-married into a family with generational roots into the military establishment, his in-laws have helped to ensure his success in a boring practice based on wills, contracts — anything but the conflict that is so often involved with the seamier side of the law. Indeed, stability and predictability are all that he wants:

Maitre Dubon’s day was a well-ordered thing. Its final goal, which the lawyer achieved without fail, was a seven-thirty dinner hour during which he shared a light meal with his wife, Genevieve, and his son, Andre. He also breakfasted with them at seven, and most days joined them for lunch at eleven, for he thought of himself as a family man, and considered it his duty to eat three meals a day in the company of his wife and son, a duty he executed with affection.

Actually, there is another darker, but more pleasurable, element to Dubon’s stability: “Between five and seven, Maitre Dubon visited Mademoiselle Madeleine Marteau in her apartment off the boulevard des Italiens. He had been visiting her there five days a week for the past eleven years, ever since he had rented the apartment for her in the seventh year of his marriage, when Andre had just turned three.”

Well-connected wife, appropriate son, compliant mistress — what more could a professional want. Order and comfort proceed on a predictable basis every day. Until, that is, one late afternoon when he usually has concluded his appointments and is ready to head to his mistress, the “speaking tube” on his desk whistles and the temporary clerk ushers in a new client:

The woman, a widow, entered the room with a firm but quiet step. Dubon guessed her husband must be six months’ gone now: she was dressed head to toe in black, but not veiled. Instead, she wore a tidy little hat. Her hair was carefully pinned up out of sight, and the little that showed around her forehead was dark but not quite black, hinting that the unseen mane was a luxurious brown or perhaps a rich chestnut colour. She wore no ornament of any kind, not even a mourning brooch, except for a gold wedding ring on her left hand. She wasn’t old — perhaps thirty or thirty-five, certainly not yet forty, he estimated — and, if it were not for the sad contradiction between her youth and her bereavement, a man passing her in the street might not give her quiet figure a second glance.

Madam Duhamel wishes to engage Dubon on behalf of a friend, the wife of Captain Dreyfus, now imprisoned on Devil’s Island, a Jewish officer who has been found guilty of spying for the Germans. The family is pursuing its own attempts at generating an appeal, but Madame Duhamel believes they are taking far too cautious a course. Her brief to Maitre Dubon is concise:

I have concluded that the secret to his release is to find the reason for his conviction. The army had evidence that someone was selling secrets to the Germans; the generals’ mistake was to convict the wrong man. And you, Maitre, you can find the real spy so as to exonerate the Captain.

I don’t read or review a lot of crime or detective novels, so I’m at a bit of a loss from here on in. Certainly, the Dreyfus affair is well-known in literature, both non-fiction and fiction (Proust strings aspects of it out through several volumes — this is at least a shorter version). And, before his marriage, Dubon did have a radical background, helping out some of those involved in the Paris Commune, although he has let that experience lapse into an overlooked past, given his current comfortable, establishment practice. A seductive side to the widow — and memories of what he used to be and might have been — motivate him to take up the case.

As the title suggests, he will be in an unfamiliar uniform for a good part of the rest of the novel as he explores the machinations of the French authorities who have a vested interest in continuing to affirm Dreyfus’ guilt. And his comfortable routine will definitely be upset as the project unfolds.

I quoted at some length early in this review to supply a flavor of the novel. Before she turned to fiction, Kate Taylor was one of Canada’s better arts journalists — her theatre criticism for the Globe and Mail was as good as any in the country. She does bring her journalistic skills to the novel, with careful description and a deliberate unfolding of her story that is almost as ordered as Dubon’s previous life. There is not a lot of drama or surprise to the book, but there is a thoroughness that deserves appreciation.

The result for me was an entertaining diversion, but not much more. The historical story is not without interest and seems to be well done; the atmosphere is appropriate. Unfortunately, given that we know the outcome from the start, even the dramatic aspects of the book have a flatness — although, given Dubon’s desire for predictablity and order, that could be regarded by some as a strength. I can’t help but thinking, however, that Taylor’s considerable writing talent could be applied to a more intriguing subject.

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9 Responses to “A Man In Uniform, by Kate Taylor”

  1. Guy Savage Says:

    Actually this sounded quite good. I just finished Josephine Hart’s Damage, and the narrator of that novel is a bored-out-of-his-mind lawyer (so I began to see connections).

    When the review came to the Dreyfus case, however, I’ll admit I lost interest. I’m coming to the conclusion that if I want to read about real people and real events, I’d rather read a non-fiction account. Reading a fiction book about real people can be frustrating at times, I’ve learned, as I end up wondering how much was true and how much was imagined.

  2. Mystica Says:

    The description of the lawyer’s life was very good. I liked the style of writing. I hope I get a chance to read this book.

  3. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Guy< Mystica: I agree that the "boring" — maybe "correct, if dull" is a better description — lawyer is a better angle. And I admit to joining with you in having a growing scepticism when it comes to novels based on real-life, historical events. So often it feels like a cheap trick to attract attention. Certainly the parts of this novel that did not rely on a Dreyfus connection were better than those that did. The author may have needed that to frame her ideas, but I don't think it served her well in the final outcome. The Maitre's own conflicts with what he thought his life should be were quite a bit more interesting.

  4. Wandering Coyote Says:

    I am reading this right now…or, more accurately, attempting to read it. I am having a really hard time staying interested in the story and I’m finding it pretty dry overall. I’ll give it another few chapters before I decide whether or not to ditch it, but it’s not looking good!

  5. KevinfromCanada Says:

    WC (that’s Wandering Coyote, not Water Closet): I suspect that it is not going to get any better, so if you have something you are looking forward to, I’d move on. On the other hand, it is not a challenging read and the detective story does get resolved.

  6. Wandering Coyote Says:

    LOL! Everyone shortens my name to WC – and yeah, someone did think it meant water closet once!

    Actually, yes, I have several RH books on my docket right now, so I might just pass this one over for the time being. I won it from Library Thing, so thank God I don’t have to do a very involved review of it!

  7. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Guy I see has stolen my comment.

    I do of course read crime. I liked the quotes and I thought the setup sounded interesting.

    When the review reached the Dreyfus case however I lost all interest. It’s hard to say why, but I had more interest in the novel examining it’s fictional protagonist than a historical incident which is already very well known to anyone with any interest in it.

    Looking at your follow up comment Kevin, it sounds like it might have been a better novel without the factual tie-in. Perhaps an author to keep an eye out for to see what she does next.

  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: I did think while reading the book that if she’d called the victim by another name that simple editing change would have made it a better book. It may be unfair on my part, but, if you are going to use a real event , it raises my critical bar (my comparison would be MacEwan casting his central character as a Nobel Prize winner, rather than an ordinary scientist — fine, but the reader judging criteria just got tougher).

    Taylor knows France well and is a more than competent wordsmith. Her first novel (which I didn’t read) also explored Proustian France (so I am not sure if I should recommend it as part of your Proust project), so I expect that historical incidents are going to be part of her future work. Perhaps the journalist in her still needs that anchor when she starts to write.

  9. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Yes, the bar raising makes sense to me. That’s what happens with me too, I judge it not just as a novel but also as to whether it sheds light on the historical event. It needs to succeed both as fiction and reportage, which is a tricky balance (and not always a desirable one).

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