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Book review: “Eye of the Needle” by Ken Follett

Ken Follett’s 1978 novel Eye of the Needle works so well — nearly half a century later, it remains a gripping read — that it may well be the perfect thriller. And a key reason for that is Follett’s decision to tell his story from three perspectives.

One story thread is that of the English couple David and Lucy Rose whose 1940 wedding day ends in the tragedy of a car crash.  David loses both legs and falls into a deep, untouchable depression.  To escape the well-meaning but oppressive attention of family and friends, the couple moves to a tiny speck in the North Sea east of Aberdeen, a ten-mile-long sliver of land, one mile wide, called Storm Island.  Good only for raising sheep, it has a house at one end for the shepherd and a second at the other into which David and Lucy move and where, in several months, they begin to raise their newborn son Jo.

The second thread is that of Percival Godliman, an historian, expert in the Middle Ages, recruited, as World War II starts, to lead an anti-spy operation and to work alongside Fred Bloggs, a young Scotland Yard inspector with a cockney accent.  When they meet, they “nip home for lunch” at Fred’s flat where his wife Christine serves them her usual badly cooked sausage and chips.  What she lacks in culinary skill, though, she makes up with courage as an ambulance driver during nighttime air raids who is known as Fearless Bloggs.  But it is at home where, early in the war, she is killed by a German bomb direct hit on their building. Fred is left filled with pain and hate, now a widower like Percy whose wife died of tuberculosis ten years earlier.

The third and most important thread is Henry Faber — or James Baker — or Heinrich Rudolph Hans von Muller-Guder, born May 26, 1900, in East Prussia. Faber is a spy who has been living under various names in Great Britain since 1937 and who, as the child of military aristocracy, has met Hitler several times, treats his superiors with disdain and is the best agent the Germans have in England. 

His weapon of choice is the stiletto. His nickname is The Needle.

The Allied deception

There is much more to say about Faber, but let me set the stage.

The first of the novel’s six parts is set in 1940 with the others all in 1944 when the Germans are expecting an invasion of the continent but don’t know where or when.

The key to Follett’s novel is the Allied attempt to trick the Germans into believing that the D-Day attack, whenever it happens, will be at Calais at the far northern tip of France near the Belgian border rather than Normandy across from the southern edge of Britain.

A variety of techniques is used to further this deception, such as bogus radio traffic and leaked misleading documents. American Gen. George S. Patton, highly respected by the Germans and conceivably the leader of the invasion, is routinely seen in East Anglia walking his white bulldog. But the most important deceit is the elaborate fake encampment for a huge army in that area, just a bit northwest across the English Channel from Calais. From the air, it looks like myriad barracks and airfields and fleets of ships — all, however, simply skeletal shapes, akin to movie-set scenery.

Sent to find out the details of this encampment, Faber discovers its phoniness and realizes that he has to get word to Berlin as soon as possible.  He heads north to Aberdeen where he knows a U-boat will be waiting for him at designated times at a designated place to take him back with his precious information.

So, Eye of the Needle becomes a race as Faber is speedily sneaking his way to the rendezvous while Godliman and Bloggs work to figure out, first, who he is and, then, where he is.  The race comes to an end on Storm Island during the worst sea storm in anyone’s recollection.

“Not as an iconoclast”

This is exciting stuff on its own, but what raises the race above the normal thriller chase and what raises Eye of the Needle to the class of a great thriller is Follett’s willingness to see and portray Faber as a human being.

Faber is described by those chasing him as ruthless, and with good reason.  During the course of the novel, he kills at least ten people, often with the stiletto face to face. He even kills another German agent to protect his own identity.  There is a part of him that is brutal and efficiently violent.

But only a part.

Consider that, after each murder, he vomits.  Not exactly the action of a cold-blooded killer.  Neither is his decision about St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.  An “affection” for the beautiful structure

drove him to send the Luftwaffe erroneous directions to St. Paul’s Cathedral: a compulsion to protect a thing of beauty.  She was a remarkable creation, as full of loveliness and subtlety as any work of art.  Faber could live with himself as a killed, but not as an iconoclast.

And, when he is forced to steal a car from two elderly sisters, he tells them he also has to have dry clothes and a bath.  They can give him the clothing of one of women’s late husband but explain to him “that two ladies living alone can hardly have a man taking a bath in their kitchen.”

Bloggs said, “What did he say when you refused?”

“He laughed,” Emma said.  “But I think he understood our position.”

“Terribly frightened”

Faber, a loner who has spent much of the last seven years keeping himself apart, needs to get close to a number of people in his reconnaissance on the fake encampment and then on his stealthy journey to Aberdeen, even to the point of letting himself sleep in the presence of others.

As a result, several people — and the reader — get to see him as something of a little child.

He stirred and opened his eyes.  At first he looked terribly frightened, like a small boy waking in strange surroundings; but, very quickly, his expression became relaxed, and he looked about him sharply…

When Faber is shipwrecked and survives by superhuman will to get to the home of Lucy and David on Storm Island, he is weaker than he has ever been in his adult life and acknowledges to himself that it “frightened him to be this weak.” 

“Incapable of feeling safe”

And he is aware of the role that fear has played in his spy’s life:

Fear was never far from the surface of his emotions; perhaps that was why he had survived so long.  He was chronically incapable of feeling safe.

Indeed, Faber recognizes that he chose the profession of spy because of his fear.

It was the only way of life which could permit him instantly to kill anyone who posed him the slightest threat.

Fear was also responsible, he knew, for “his obsessive independence, his insecurity, and his contempt for his military superiors.”

Behind enemy lines

With his callous efficiency with the stiletto, Faber is not an attractive human being, but neither is he a monster.  He sees each death he brings about in his role as a spy as the equivalent of a death in battle.  He sees himself on the front lines of the war — behind enemy lines.

It’s a measure of Follett’s skill as a writer in portraying Faber’s humanity that, despite the man’s ruthlessness, the reader does not despise him out of hand, but, instead, feels a kind of kinship with the spy.

Perhaps humans should not let themselves get to the point at which, even in war, they kill civilians. 

But this was done by the Axis nations and the Allies in the aerial bombing of cities.  It was done in the previous centuries and millenniums by armies besieging fortress cities, starving the population into submission.

And does Faber as a German spy do anything different from what a British or American spy would do in the enemy’s capital? 

Patrick T. Reardon


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