For a thriller to be successful, it must have three things: great writing, great characters and high stakes. Ken Follett’s The Eye of the Needle delivers on all three.
In his Ten Rules for Writing, Elmore Leonard’s number one no-no is “Never open a book with weather.” Yet that is exactly what Ken Follett does with his spy thriller.
In paragraphs that Hemingway would have been proud of, Follett opens with some really cold weather.
“It was the coldest winter for forty-five years. Villages in the English countryside were cut off by the snow and the Thames froze over. One day in January the Glasgow-London train arrived at Euston twenty-four hours late. The snow and the blackout combined to make motoring perilous; road accidents doubled, and people told jokes about how it was more risky to drive an Austin Seven along Piccadilly at night than to take a tank across the Siegfried Line.
“Then, when spring came, it was glorious. Barrage balloons floated majestically in bright blue skies, and soldiers on leave flirted with girls in sleeveless dresses on the streets of London.
“The city did not much look like the capital of a nation at war. There were signs, of course; and Henry Faber, cycling from Waterloo Station toward Highgate, noted them…”
With those paragraphs that remind the reader of the opening paragraphs in A Farewell to Arms, Follett introduces the reader to Henry Faber. Henry is a German spy, living in England at the start of World War II. He is known by the alias “Die Nadel”, The Needle. From his vantage point, he counts troop movements and other items and transmits them back to Berlin. And Die Nadel is good at his job. Very good.
Professor Percival Godliman is a medievalist. And it is going to take more than a war to get the good professor away from his Middle Ages. Though his uncle is trying to pull him away from his solitary studies and recruit him to help catch spies. Then Percival finds himself in an air raid shelter, huddling with others. He realizes he misses the comradery of being involved in a great cause. So he joins up to become the spy catcher to take Die Nadel down.
Lucy and David Rose are newly weds, heading off for their one-night honeymoon. David is a pilot for the RAF. Then their car crashes into a truck. Rose is fine but David can never walk again. So they retreat to Storm Island off the coast of Scotland. There they can hide away from the world and the war with Jo, their son.
Four years pass with Die Nadle on the run, collecting information for Hitler. Finally he comes upon some information that could change the direction of the war. With Godliman and his people on his tail, Faber and his information must reach a submarine that will take him back to Germany. He steals a boat and runs into a storm and ends up on Storm Island.
Dropping half dead at her doorstep on Storm Island, he finds Rose irresistible. So he lets down his guard. Big mistake. Very big mistake. It will be this housewife who faces down the greatest German spy of the war. The fate of civilization depends on it. And at the end of the novel, we discover an afterward that is quite logical, yet surprising. And not included in the movie.
Though I had seen the movie several times and enjoyed it immensely, the novel went deeper and gave me a fuller picture of how essential it was to catch Faber. I give the novel, and Ken Follett, a big thumbs up.