A Spy Novel that Reads Like a
Good Alternate History Fiction
(A Book Review of Ken Follett’s The Key to Rebecca)
The last camel collapsed at noon.
So begins Ken Follett’s intriguing World War II thriller set in 1942 Cairo, a city holding its breath. The German army is poised for a strike in Egypt, and the British seems powerless to stop it; powerless, too, to catch the master spy with the codename Sphinx who is stealing their military secrets and transmitting them to Field Marshall Rommel. Just who is he? And what is the code hidden in the pages of Daphne du Maurier’s famous novel? Only one man, a British intelligence officer, could thwart him. But to get the key in his hands and uncover Germany’s secret weapon, he must risk losing all he holds dear.
At the age of 29, Ken Follett doesn’t want himself to be categorized to write or identified with a single genre, and asserts early on with his publishers that he’s going to write whatever caught his fancy and his readers. However, while researching for The Eye of the Needle he chanced upon an incident in history that became the building block of what will become The Key to Rebecca that made him drew back and exclaim, hhmm…
A few chapters in Follett’s third book, another novel set during the unfolding drama that is World War II, it structurally reminded me of his break out best seller, The Eye of the Needle. Yes, it is formulaic, but it is formulaic at best, for Follett writes in his prime and in his prowess. Alex Wolf is just another Henry Faber being the ruthless and cunning Nazi spy, but the beauty with which Follett creates these anti-heroes is in how he can squeeze out sympathy in the reader one eventually roots for him that in the end you so badly want him to triumph despite the fact that he’s the bad guy. Along with a cast of carefully and perfectly rounded out characters with psychological depth, self-awareness and absorbing female lead often lacking in spy novels and thrillers, the reader is not only privy to what they think and feel, but drawn in as well of their whims and sexual desires. And if I may add, Follett’s sex scenes, generous and detailed as they are, are not mere add-on to the chapters not only, and perhaps, to titillate the reader, but to add more nuance and can sometimes reveal vulnerabilities of heroes and villains alike.
The action is steadily paced and the tension builds like a tightening noose it’s almost hard to turn away and put the book down, and it sometimes made me scream at every unexpected twist. In this book Follett seamlessly combined history and fiction using historical detail to further the plot, especially in how he use the real-life Nazi spy Johannes Eppler in attributing the character of Alex Wolf and particularly by setting it in Africa, a place scarcely mentioned in WWII books, it’s hard to believe that fierce battle also occurred in this continent besides Europe. Adopting a credible narrator’s voice as that of a historian, Ken Follett managed to convey a wealth of information with his descriptions about war-time Cairo, the desert, nomadic life, the rise of Egyptian Nationalism and the gripping events of the Battle of Tobruk.
The Key to Rebecca is an impressive cloak and dagger book that pits together two men in whose hands lies the outcome of the war and the fate of a seething nation. Readers who loved Ken Follett’s brand of fiction will find in here trademarks that made his novels such brilliant best sellers. There’s an incredible chase scene of motorcycles hurtling thru blacked-out Cairo; the clever spy who’s always ahead and narrowly escapes his hunter; and a harrowing race against death and a speeding train. Nevertheless, it also showcases something new to the table for good ole fans and new readers to feast on.