A Tense World War II Thriller Filled with Spies and Tactics
Author: Ken Follett
A tense thriller, Eye of the Needle is the novel that effectively launched Ken Follett’s career as a novelist, also spawning a later movie. Set in WWII the story oscillates between three narratives the first being the shenanigans of a Nazi spy named “die Nadel” (the needle) who prefers to kill with a stiletto knife and has debunked allied counter-intelligence regarding the true location of the D-Day landings by accidentally discovering fake tanks, aircraft, and a military town – an elaborate scheme designed to convince the Nazis that the landing is planned for Calais. Armed with this information and photographs of the silent, detailed town, die Nadel, aka Henry Faber, is on the run to outwit British intelligence and get in contact with his submarine. Now, the fate of the war balanced in his cold hands.
Meanwhile, the Fuhrer is waiting to hear from his number one spy, his D-Day plan resting on the trustworthy intelligence he knows that he will receive. He leans toward suspecting Normandy to be the target, but only Faber’s word will assure his decision.
British intelligence MI5 agents Godliman and Bloggs are leading the man-hunt to stop Faber, keep the populace in general ignorance about who the stiletto murderer really is, and ensure that Faber’s fellow Nazis never hear the details regarding his discovery.
Meanwhile, on a desolate place called Storm Island, a newly marriage woman, Lucy, is experiencing grievous marital problems. Involved in a car accident on the night of her honeymoon, her new husband David loses both of his legs, and also his interest in her. Deprived of his dream to become a fighter pilot and protect his country, David becomes a bitter sheep farmer, forcing his wife to lead a life of loveless isolation. Her desperation for love is growing, as is her desire for a kind word and a passionate touch.
All three stories eventually intertwine as Faber seeks to contact his submarine and cohorts with full details of the British invasion plan and the elaborate deception scheme. Through poor luck, clever planning, brutality, bad weather, sheer coincidence, epic ploys, and fast paced decision making, the narrative weaves between historical tension and personal despair.
This was my first experience with Follett. My boyfriend and I listened to the audio book version together over several lazy weeks while tooling around town. At first, I was not so impressed, although the boyfriend was rather intrigued by the novel. Admittedly, war stories are never my go to read and the story seemed sloppy at first, especially the randomness of Lucy’s love life interlaced with the M15 hunt and Faber’s calculated run. While the Faber and M15 stories necessarily fit together, Lucy and David’s quiet drama is not relevant until the conclusion, although it does get an equal amount of page space with Faber. The seemingly unequal plot threads and the manner in which time initially jumps, leaving large gaps, was a distraction for me.
Godliman and Bloggs, ironically, get very little “screen time” as it were and while they are fleshed out, they feel distinctly secondary to the drama. They are there as plot devices to cause Faber trouble, yet Faber is truly the star here and while rooting for him is out of the question (his very coldness chills us, plus he is a Nazi), his ability to stay analytical and detached is somehow entrancing and we love to hate him. Partly, this is because most of the action is during his segments of the story – his escape attempts ranging from the subtle to the absurd to the marvelous to the truly genius. The heart-pounding portion of the narrative is derived from his character – a man who proves both sociopathic and yet just human enough, just emotional enough, to have a disquietingly eerie quality that makes readers wonder when he will be the monster and when he will be the man. The oscillation and his very lack of predictability keeps the narrative tension high and it is fear of him, fear of his diabolic revelations, that invests edge-of-the-seat, breathless tension, especially in the conclusion.
While Lucy and David initiate the story, their tale soon becomes displaced and they often get in the way of the man hunt. Yes, Lucy’s loveless (and thereby sexless) marriage is something readers can empathize with but when placed against the grand backdrop of winning or losing a World War, her story seems small and undeserving of so much page space, so much excess sympathy. Of course, there is a reason for this and it becomes evident in the conclusion when Faber and Storm Island cross. Lucy holds the keys to the future of both countries, the outcome of the war, and her mind is on personal problems and a dysfunctional household. Does Lucy have the courage to do what must be done, the stamina to take on a man such as Faber, the resourcefulness to win? This is where everything in the tale coalesces and readers lean forward anxiously, white knuckled, forgetting to breath. This is when the merely interesting facts become volatile and all that time spent building separate stories and personalities pays off. It’s the crowning glory of Eye of the Needle, which takes a good story and makes it into a palpable experience.
The audio book rendition is read by a complete cast. Sound effects, including the distortion of radio transmissions, make the story into a full, theatrical production as does the usage of music to set a tone at the beginning and end of each disc. Each character is read by a separate voice actor, peopling a dense universe and further immersing readers into the story.
– Frances Carden
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