Ken Follett Essay - Critical Essays

Ken Follett Mystery & Detective Fiction Analysis

The Eye of the Needle and Ken Follett’s subsequent spy novels clearly illustrate the fruits of his apprentice period. His fiction is economically written, with few wasted words, scenes, or characters. Compared with the espionage novels of John le Carré, Len Deighton, Frederick Forsyth, and Robert Ludlum, Follett’s books are tightly constructed and remarkably easy to follow, yet Follett displays the intelligence, ambiguities, subtleties, and didacticism associated with the best spy fiction. Despite a quiet socialism that distrusts the rich and powerful and sides with the oppressed and disadvantaged, Follett never allows his concerns to get in the way of telling an exciting story.

Unlike most of his contemporaries, Follett does not limit himself to specific times and places. His novels take place in World War II Britain and Egypt, Israel in the 1960’s, England in the days leading up to World War I, and the Afghanistan of the early 1980’s, with side trips to Germany, Russia, France, and the United States. His protagonists are spies, military men, revolutionaries, prostitutes, and homemakers. He occasionally includes historical personages, such as Sir Winston Churchill and a young Anwar al-Sadat. Unafraid to resort to the unusual, unexpected, or unlikely, Follett, in Triple, has Israeli intelligence enlist the aid of a Mafia don to hijack a shipload of uranium.

Incident and character are the major elements in Follett’s fiction. Each novel has at least one brilliantly conceived and executed sequence. One of the best and most cinematic action scenes occurs in The Key to Rebecca (1980), when the motorcycle-riding hero chases the running villain through the streets of Cairo. A different but equally gripping sequence appears in Lie Down with Lions (1985). When that novel’s pregnant heroine witnesses a young Afghan boy’s loss of a hand to a mine, she rips off her blouse to bind the wound, and begins carrying the boy to medical help. On the way, she is beaten by an anti-Western Afghan outraged by her nakedness. She continues struggling to reach the doctor, her husband, only to be left alone when her labor begins prematurely. Her daughter is later delivered by an ignorant midwife. Follett touches on a wide range of emotions throughout this series of events.

Follett’s plots are crammed with details to assist in creating setting, mood, and verisimilitude. He writes, in The Man from St. Petersburg (1982), about Russian expatriates in pre-World War I London as if he had firsthand knowledge of their lives. Follett pays as much attention to the day-to-day details of life in a remote Afghan village as he does to the action of Lie Down with Lions. In the latter, he even includes a bibliography, listing the sources of his Afghan information.

Although Follett’s protagonists may not be as fully realized as those in the works of le Carré or Deighton, he is never satisfied with mere stereotypes, carefully delineating the characters’ social, political, economic, psychological, and sexual motives. His heroes are nagged by doubts about themselves, their work, and their worlds. Nat Dickstein, the Mossad agent in Triple, and Ellis Thaler, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operative in Lie Down with Lions, hate their jobs, feeling trapped in webs of deceit. Follett’s villains are always interesting, with a thin line often separating the good from the bad. In The Key to Rebecca, the novelist draws numerous parallels between his English hero and German antagonist. The Russian anarchist of The Man from St. Petersburg is portrayed as both hero and villain.

Follett plans each of his novels with the advice of his agent and his editor, calculations aimed at producing best sellers. Realizing that the readership of espionage fiction is predominantly male and desiring to make his books more attractive to female readers, he has placed a strong woman character at the center of each book. This character is an average woman, nonprofessional, frustrated romantically, with whom many female readers can identify. She is also intelligent, courageous, and resourceful—the moral center of the novel, given to expressing some of Follett’s social and political views. This heroine either assists the hero in foiling the villains or does so on her own. That she can be counted on to save the day makes Follett’s novels somewhat formulaic. This woman can also expect sexual fulfillment, leading to graphically erotic scenes, especially in Lie Down with Lions.

Follett offers a fictional theory of sorts in his 1979 Writer essay “Books That Enchant and Enlighten.” Claiming that most popular writers aim too low, while their more serious colleagues wallow in “the trivia of middle-class life,” Follett asks novelists to refuse to settle for merely “exciting trash or thoughtful tedium.” He attacks the entertainers for creating wooden characters and writing carelessly and the aesthetes for dispensing with plot and “the world outside the mind,” suggesting that each type of writer incorporate elements of both popular and serious approaches:The underwater knife fight is more exciting, not less, if it’s described in graceful, powerful prose; the plot has more drama if it depends on character development as much as [on] external events; the romance is more thrilling if the tall dark hero nurses a genuine, credible sadness behind that handsome-but-cruel smile.

Writing successful fiction, according to Follett, is presenting numerous elements correctly, and he encourages novelists “to discover new things to get right.”

The Eye of the Needle

All the elements of Follett’s fictional formula appear in The Eye of the Needle, and his later books have offered variations on his achievement in this first major success. The Germans’ best spy, Heinrich von Müller-Güden, has been an undercover agent in England since before World War II. His code name is Die Nadel (the needle), after the stiletto he uses to dispatch those who get in his way. This master spy, called Henry Faber (one of his British aliases) throughout the narrative, is a consummate professional who never allows anything to interfere with his duties, cutting himself off, as much as possible, from human emotions.

Faber has learned that the Allied base in Norfolk is a hoax, nothing but skeleton barracks, plywood tanks, rubber ships, and dummy aircraft. This stratagem is intended to convince the Germans that the inevitable invasion of the Continent will be at Pas de Calais. Faber must take his photographic evidence to Adolf Hitler in person so that all efforts will be directed farther down the French coast at Normandy. British intelligence must stop him before he reaches the submarine sent to pick him up somewhere off the coast of the United Kingdom.

Assigned to stop Faber are Professor Percival Godliman and Frederick Bloggs, a former Scotland Yard inspector. Godliman, who served in military intelligence during World War I, has engulfed himself in medieval studies following the death of his wife. Bloggs is also a widower, his wife, an ambulance driver, having been killed during the Blitz. Bloggs’s pursuit of Die Nadel is made more personal because he blames Faber for his wife’s death, since the spy’s reports have determined where German bombs are to...

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