Friday, November 04, 2011

Book Review: The Eye of the Needle

Ken Follett
1978
Awards: Edgar
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ –

This book is a blockbuster page-turner with all the ingredients - war, sex, human drama, and international intrigue with the fate of the free world at stake. It also has several elements that I am a particular sucker for: spies, WWII-era Britain, remote Scottish islands, and violent storms at sea.

The main character is Henry Faber, a careful, ruthless, handsome German spy. Faber is known as Die Nadel (The Needle) because of the trademark stiletto he carries and with which he kills a fair number of people over the course of the book.

Traveling around the southeast coast of England in early 1944, Faber discovers that the forces the Germans have been observing building up in East Anglia, which they believe will be used to invade France at Calais, are a hoax. He even is able to take a roll of pictures of dummy cardboard planes to prove it. This leads him to the natural (and correct) conclusion that the Allies are planning to invade at Normandy instead. If he is able to let his bosses in Germany know this, it could change the entire course of the war.

Faber then tries to make his way up from London to his contact, a U-boat stationed off the coast of Scotland, before he is caught by the pesky MI5 agents on his tail. He runs into a number of frustrating delays and setbacks. Desperate, he eventually steals a fishing boat and sets out for sea in the middle of a huge storm, only to get shipwrecked on a barren, windswept island populated by only four people: an old shepherd, a young farmer who lost his legs in a car accident, the farmer’s sexy estranged wife, and their baby son.

The shepherd and farmer are immediately hostile and suspicious, but the wife, Lucy, is quite receptive to Faber... to say the least. The challenge for Die Nadel then is to elude the two men, find a way to contact the U-boat by radio or boat, and to avoid getting distracted by falling in love with Lucy.

Donald Sutherland and Kate Nelligan are pensive in the
1981 screen adaptation of this blockbuster.
Like The Day of the Jackal, the story is told primarily from the point of view of the bad guy. This can get emotionally confusing. On the one hand, Faber is the enemy and you want him to get caught, and you don’t like that he kills Home Guards and innocent rooming house landladies. But, on the other hand, almost up to the very end, you root for him to win his hand-to-hand fights and to get it on with Lucy.

The details of spycraft are not as gritty and realistic as in, say, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold - but then again, Follett doesn’t have the advantage of a background in British intelligence like LeCarré does.

2 comments:

Chris Hartman said...

Of course I cannot even get through two chapters of fiction these days, no matter how gripping, but the 1981 movie is one that has stuck with me for years. Several evocative scenes of Sutherland scrambling around the Scottish coast. Sutherland was perfectly cast in this movie. (Actually he's a hugely underrated actor IMO.)

Lord John Whorfin said...

Yes! This review and Chris's comment really nailed it.

I still remember when and where I first read this, which is a good litmus test for me of a great read.

And it's one of the few movies that totally stands up to the book. And Sutherland is aces -- in this and most everything as far as I can tell.

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