Through a Needle Darkly
(A Book Review of Ken Follett’s Eye of the Needle)
At the young age of twenty seven, Ken Follett met with instant success — both critical and financial — with his first international bestseller Eye of the Needle. The Mystery Writers of America gave it their Edgar Allan Poe Award in 1978 and the book was adapted for the big screen in 1981 starring Douglas Sutherland and Kate Nelligan.
This gripping spy story centers on the secret preparations of the Allies during the World War II for the invasion of Normandy (now remembered as the D-Day), notably the deceptive build up of forces in the Southeast England to trick Germans into thinking that the Allies would invade via the Pas de Calais. The storyline takes us through the exploits of Henry Faber, a dangerous and very effective German spy planted in the England before the war, who discovers the Allies’ big secret and runs out of the British Isles in order to personally deliver this vital information to Germany. This follows a thrilling and exciting chase as British MI5 agents, Percival Godliman and Frederick Bloggs, are hot for the trail to capture Faber — by hook or by crook — as the novel plunges to its dramatic climax in a storm battered island inhabited by the couples David and Lucy Rose where the final chapters take place. Follett’s spy novel has been celebrated for its exciting action and interesting characters which had sold millions of copy since it was first published and continues to be regarded as a classic in World War II literature of suspense and adventure.
Eye of the Needle’s plot is fast moving and action packed. In this breakout bestseller, he skillfully builds action and suspense and meld them so well. Although the plot is actually following four story line — that of Faber, the Rose family, the British Secret Service, and the German Intelligence Department —it never becomes confused as the separate story lines come together very slickly.
Each part of the book shows, over-all, how Follett brilliantly outlined this novel. Part One introduces the main players in what will be an extraordinary chase. Part Two sets up the specific chase that will dominate the rest of the novel. Part Three lays down the first phase of the actual chase. Part Four offers a curious balance of the increased frenzy of the chase with the strange pause and peace of the cottage life when Faber got stuck in Storm Island. Part Five gets down to the business of the consequences of deception and the beginnings of the final struggle. Part Six of the novel opens up with the definition of the final stage of the pursuit and of the novel’s conclusion. Each part has the same symmetry wherein the first chapter always deals with the current status of the spy, the second with the spy catchers, and so until the sixth which always tell of the international military consequences of what has gone before.
Readers may not notice the structure because the opening parts lay out the elements of the plot so well that the repetition of the pattern in the subsequent parts takes on a familiar and comfortable feel. As the vents of the novel move quickly through a variety of settings and situations, the structure ensures that the focus stays on the central characters while the plot continues to develop. Hence, the novel is character-driven.
By setting this novel during World War II, Follett underscores the main theme of the novel: the defense of democratic traditions against Nazi aggression which also happens to be the common theme in literature of that period. In large and small ways the British people exemplified the spirit of resistance and commitment to democratic values. Characters need not spend too much time evaluating the merits of the struggle; it’s given that fighting for democracy is their primary task.
Consequently, another theme that the novel illustrates is that of patriotism in the actions of its characters. The novel’s focus on the commitment people make to the values that under gird their lives counter any tendency toward cynicism about war efforts that might otherwise arise in the novel about spies and their pursuers.
The value of individual intelligence and instinct over the unthinking imperatives of large organizations is another theme that the novel represents.
The novel repeatedly reminds the reader how much any democratic society operates through trust and a sense of security. In the encounters between Faber and the British people, the novel argues for trust and openness as central characteristics of a free, democratic society.
The novel’s title alludes both to the statement in the New Testament by Christ that “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of the needle than for someone who is rich to enter the Kingdom of the God” (Mark 10:25) and the conventional wisdom about the difficulty of finding a needle in a haystack. This needle (a reference to Die Nadel) is dangerous because it is the stiletto that he carries and uses often, of course, but also because he acts as a spy, that is, his “eye” poses a threat.
If you are into chase books or movies, this book turned out to be extremely good and got better and better as it progressed. It was thrilling and all-around bone-chilling. Eye of the Needle didn’t cease to amaze me for one second. Although very violent, it’s addictive. I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in a good spy novel.
Jolly good show!
Published by Arbor House Publishing Co.
(Hardcover, May 1978 Edition)
Read in September 2009