* Eye of the Needle by Ken Follett

Posted by Lew Weinstein on May 27, 2012

Eye of the Needle is clearly one of the best suspense novels of the 20th century. I recently re-read it, and enjoyed it even more the second time.

Follett utilizes what he calls a “ping-pong” structure, alternating between the characters, switching focus abruptly at the end of scenes, and leaving the reader in suspense for many pages before resuming the thread.

This structure was, according to an essay by Follett appended to the end of my copy, developed in the author’s original story outline and then rigidly adhered to, and it worked splendidly, forcing him to consider the impact of each character’s actions on the other, and offering ample latitude for enriched attention to character, landscape and emotion.

Eye of the Needle is also a historical novel, and as a writer of historical fiction myself, I am particularly impressed with Follett’s ability to write a suspenseful story despite the fact that we know D-day succeeded, and thus that Faber failed.

Follett draws the distinction between fact and fiction with a one page historical preface about the D-Day deception. He ends the preface … “That much is history. What follows is fiction. Still and all, one suspects something like this must have happened.” We’re immediately intrigued.

Follett brilliantly, and necessarily, transfers his fictional tension away from whether Faber will succeed … to how he will be foiled. In the process, he creates a superb heroine who rises to larger-than-life status in the greatest two days of her life.

In this regard, Eye of the Needle is much like Frederick Forsythe’s Day of the Jackal, where we know that De Gaulle was not murdered by a sniper but are carried into exquisite tension anyway, again over how the also enormously competent Jackal will be stopped.

Follett’s two main characters are complex and well developed.

Faber of course is the villain. But he is also patriotic (to Germany), quite competent, and even capable of feelings, which he must repress in order to carry out his mission. He is a wonderful lover, which he could not be if he were truly devoid of  feeling. This complex character must be admired even as we hate and fear him. A remarkable achievement.

Lucy starts out as a dominated young woman, who chooses to escape to her father-in-law’s island rather than live among people. But in her virtual solitude, she develops an unexpected resolve, and when faced with the ultimate challenge, she rises to it. Is what she does believable? Maybe not, although in wartime people do extraordinary things. In any case, it doesn’t matter since Follett portrays this larger-than-life character in a way that fully engages the reader’s emotions as we root for her to succeed against the far stronger and better trained Faber. The final scenes and epilogue drew tears from this romantic reader, but then I’m always a sucker for melodrama.

Godliman (What a name! I’d love to know where Follett got it.) is the enabler of the story, providing the narrative links that show lead Faber to Lucy. But how much better to provide these through an interesting character than through narrative prose. Godliman’s growth from passive professor to razor-sharp spycatcher is done a little quickly. We can believe it, but we would like to know more about him. Perhaps as the third character, he doesn’t warrant more attention.

Follett uses several writing techniques that I found quite instructive.

At least once in the story, the omniscient narrator speaks in his own voice, providing a foreshadowing that sets the stage while piquing the reader’s interest. The narrator interjects “Faber … Godliman … two-thirds of a triangle that one day would be crucially completed by … David and Lucy.”

 Follett  has Faber ask himself questions about what he should do … should he bury the five dead men? …what should he do with the boat? … should he jump on a passing train? This technique allows the exploration of options within the context of the story instead of more clumsily by the narrator.

There is also a short flashback scene where Faber dreams about his first arrival in London. We first think it’s a true dream, but soon learn it is not. This allows us to learn both how Faber actually arrived in London and also how terrified he is about being discovered.

There’s much more in this great suspense story, but I think this review has gone on long enough.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: