Ken Follett Essay - Ken Follett Long Fiction Analysis

Ken Follett Long Fiction Analysis

Though he has varied his writing pattern over the years, Ken Follett often concentrates on a time of international crisis (revolution, war, bank failures, plague, terrorist attacks), then creates a fictive exploration of what could have happened. He mixes invented characters with historical figures and invented action with historical records before returning to some type of epilogue that teases the reader with reference to an actual news story or historical text (like the defeat of the Germans in North Africa during World War II or a newspaper notification of a significant death). His family crises often parallel national or international crises, and middle or working-class outsiders rise to the occasion and dramatically outperform the aristocrats. An impoverished miner or circus performer might gain influence and transform society by behaving with compassion or defending a just cause.

Follett has been proud of his craft and versatility; he has tried new ideas and striven to improve his work. After a series of successful spy thrillers depicting resourceful agents, Follett turned to historical novels, then in the 1990’s returned to modern stories centered on high-tech equipment. In the first decade of the twenty-first century, he wrote about World War II, the fourteenth century, biological terrorism, and Cold War espionage. He includes strong heroines who thrive in tough times, and his ongoing goal as a writer has been to produce works in the middle ground between the serious and the popular.

The Eye of the Needle

The Eye of the Needle is a tightly constructed spy story about Germany’s long-term top spy in England, Heinrich von Müller-Güden, codenamed Die Nadel (the Needle). Under the alias Henry Faber, this master spy, a dispassionate loner scornful of German authorities and the National Socialist Party, has discovered dummy aircraft and plywood tanks that mean the Allies will invade at Normandy, not Pas-de-Calais, France. He must board a U-boat and take his photographic evidence to Adolf Hitler.

Faber flees aboard a stolen craft that wrecks on Storm Island off the coast of Aberdeen, Scotland, pursued by medievalist professor Percival Godliman and former Scotland Yard inspector Frederick Bloggs. Bloggs blames Faber’s spy reports for his wife’s death in a German bombing raid. On the island Faber encounters Lucy and Dave Rose, a dysfunctional couple whose wedding was closely followed by a traffic accident in which David lost both his legs. Lucy and Faber, both emotionally deprived, find kinship and release in each other’s arms. Dave, an embittered sheep farmer who has been sexually estranged from his wife since the accident, discovers Faber’s photographic negatives and fights him to the death along a cliff top. Lucy remains composed, has sex with Faber, then flees with her son to radio for help. When caught, she axes Faber’s hand, knocks out the radio, then shoots Faber when she overtakes him on the beach. In doing so, this lonely, isolated woman determines the fate of millions of people. By humanizing Faber (he falsifies information to save St. Paul’s Cathedral from German bombs), Follett establishes a pattern that has become his trademark: balanced portraits of characters on opposite sides of a conflict; understandable villains and flawed heroes.


Set one year after the Six Day War of June, 1967, Triple builds on a striking real-life news story—a 1968 heist of two hundred tons of uranium (enough for thirty nuclear bombs)—to explore a hypothetical explanation of how and why Israel acquired nuclear materials for its weapons program. A newspaper clipping at novel’s end suggests readers have the backstory of a world news event. The novel postulates that Israeli intelligence officers, shocked by Egypt’s nuclear capability, hijacked the shipload of uranium.

Mossad agent Nat Dickstein, a master of disguise committed to a Jewish homeland, nonetheless loves an attractive Arab woman, Suza Ashford. As Dickstein, aided by a wartime buddy who is now a Mafia don, puts a clever plan in play, a Palestinian triple agent for the Egyptians and Soviets—and a fedayeen, or freedom fighter—Yasif Hassan, and a Russian, David Rostov, seek to thwart the plan. In the process, Dickstein rescues Ashford from Rostov after a hair-raising high-seas chase and sinks the interfering Russian vessel. Follett provides Israeli and Palestinian perspectives, with the Mossad agent suffering strong doubts about his assignment and the Palestinian disturbed at endangering old friends (he went to Oxford with Dickstein and Rostov).

The Key to Rebecca

Set in wartime Cairo and the north African desert lands that German field marshal Erwin Rommel’s World War II forces controlled, The Key to Rebecca is one of Follett’s best works. It is based on the exploits of the real German spy, John Eppler, at the time of Rommel’s 1942 move on Alexandria. This well-written, satisfying spy story pits a capable, good-hearted British military intelligence officer against a cruel, psychologically complex spy codenamed Sphinx, who feeds Rommel detailed troop movements. The plot turns on the deciphering of the German spy’s secret code, features a young Anwar Sadat, satirizes British pukka sahibs, and brings to life the interplay between Cairenes—those from Cairo—and British.

The Man from St. Petersburg

Set in London just before World War I and amid Russian expatriates, The Man from St. Petersburg unravels a Russian anarchist’s scheme to keep Russia from signing a treaty supporting England against Germany by assassinating the czarist negotiator. The earl of Walden, who hosts the Russian prince and handles...

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