The Mortality in Lies
Gibson’s debut offers a fascinating take on two scandals that shook the French government in the 1890s. The novel begins when Percival Welles sneaks into a London club. Holding three men at gunpoint, one of them the Prime Minister, Welles tells the story of his involvement in the Dreyfus Affair. The ensuing backstory shows him arriving in Paris in 1896, undercover as a journalist, to become the handler for Count Esterhazy, a minor French official feeding intelligence to the British government about French general Marchand’s expedition to the French Congo.
When Welles’s co-editor and lover, an alluring and independent woman named Georges Seigneur, draws him into her campaign to prove the innocence of Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish officer convicted on charges of espionage, Welles finds evidence of a vast cover-up that endangers the lives of all who try to expose it.
Intertwined with the hostage scenario and Welles’s spying are the journals of Lieutenant Andre Durand, traveling with Marchand on a daring mission with 150 men who plan to confront the whole of British might in Africa. The stories merge when Welles plays a key part in both the Dreyfus Affair and the Fashoda Incident, exposing an infamous injustice and averting a near-war.
The characters are lightly sketched, their motives unexplored and their histories a blank, but the pull of the story lies in the clear, taut prose and the real suspense Scott manages to build around well-known incidents. While Belle Époque Paris glitters faintly in the background, colonial Africa comes alive with horrific and all-too-real details of European atrocities. Scott handles the three stories with a skill that for the most part keeps the reader anchored in time and place, and their final intersection provides a satisfying payoff. Readers who enjoy spies, conspiracies, and military history will appreciate this book.