Book Review: Eye of the Needle by Ken Follett
Eye of the Needle has been on my To Be Read list for quite some time. I've read Pillars of the Earth twice and loved it both times. When Follett published World Without End, a kind of sequel to Pillars, I devoured that as well. Fall of Giants disappointed me greatly, but I knew that I had Eye of the Needle in reserve.
And this spy thriller delivers quite the adventure! No master work of literature here, but the story certainly diverts your attention and allows you to escape into WWII moves and counter-moves.
Now I'm not going to spoil anything here for you, but I would avoid reading too many summaries of this book. I consider some of them too detailed for my tastes. And My Person and I had recently watched The Iron Lady where there's a pretty big spoiler. The book has been out since 1978, so I'm not complaining, but if you have not read this book, then I would avoid this Margaret Thatcher movie until you've finished reading.
The main character is Henry Faber, one alias of a German spy who has floated anonymously through England since before WWII began observing Allied movements and reporting back to Nazi headquarters with his own signature style featuring an air of superiority and defiance.
He is THE consummate spy. Throughout the novel, his ability to manipulate circumstances is impressive. As a character I didn't like him, but he is quite efficient. Tagging along with his every move and being privy to his thought process keeps this novel engaging.
Follett sets his story as the Allies are building up forces for D-Day and they are trying to camouflage their activity with misdirection in a variety of areas. While the plot centers around these true events, the majority of the characters are fictional. Sure Hitler and Churchill get some face time, but Follett's point is who knows if a spy like Faber really existed.
Then there are the MI5 agents who are tasked with identifying Faber and stopping him. These MI5 agents cannot afford to let Faber deliver a message back to Germany. There are two main agents chasing Faber and a few other characters whose roles become important in the last third of the novel.
With these multiple points of view, Follett nicely balances his narration between the good guys and the bad guys. Sure Faber is just one Nazi bad guy, but we get scenes involving other Germans who are trying to figure out how their top spy may communicate his report. And back in England, the British characters are unraveling who Faber truly is while simultaneously trying to stop him from filing his report. It's good stuff all around. Lots of chasing. Lots of tracking people down. Who has a picture of this spy? Anyone?
One disadvantage to rotating through these various characters is that it allows the reader to wonder: Where is Follett going with this particular plot line? And you can start to guess some pretty big events.
Another point of contention for me is how Follett writes his sex scenes. He writes female characters who act like men. I can't go into detail here without being spoilery, but Follett's characterization of women's attitudes towards sex is just off. His female characters never seem entirely authentic to me because they have these sexual moments that read ridiculously. These moments are not enough to pan a book, but I certainly start skimming as soon as Follett starts undressing his characters.
If you have never read any of Follett's work, then this is a good place to start. The paperback is 368 pages, which is shorter than many of his other books. If you like his style, then his other books have even more point-of-view characters that he rotates his narration around. I'm guessing that Follett realized he had a solid formula for creating tension. He just added more characters to prevent telegraphing too many plot points.