The 1960s and 70s were the heydays of thriller writers. Agatha Christie, Frederick Forsyth, Dick Francis and a lot of others were the toast of thriller readers everywhere. And into this scene, in 1978, stepped Kenneth Martin Follett (more popularly known as Ken Follett) with his immensely successful The Eye of the Needle. How successful? It’s a bestseller that’s sold more than 10 million copies till date, and was on the list of BBC News “100 Most Influential Books” list in 2019!
Initially launched as Storm Island after the name of the story’s climax location, The Eye of the Needle is the quintessential Spy Thriller, checking in on all the requisites for a potboiler. Its antagonist is smart, focused, skilled and determined. The protagonist is usually a step behind, with a brainy sidekick to help even the odds. And because every thriller essentially needs a love interest, we have the love interest too – but not in the format expected by the readers. All of it set in the time and place when spies and spy catchers were considered by the public to be the norm – Wartime London.
Follett breaks the fourth wall and introduces the main characters directly with lines like “Faber and Godliman – two-thirds of a triangle that would one day be completed by the principal of a ceremony proceeding at this moment in a small country church.” When we first meet the German spy Heinrich Mueller-Güder at the beginning of the war, he is masquerading as the Englishman Henry Faber and working as a lowly railway clerk in London (not without purpose, though. His position gives him access to troop train movements). The spy catchers from MI5, Godliman and Bloggs, are just meeting each other after being recruited into the Double Cross Committee. And the love interest, Lucy, is getting married to a fighter pilot.
The book starts sedately, with Follett taking up the first 7 chapters merely to establish the capabilities of the principal players. Faber, the professional spy, murders his landlady when she discovers his real identity and disguises the murder to look like a tryst gone sour. Godliman, a historian of note, is recruited into the Double Cross Committee for his habit of meticulous research and the ability to find obscure but accurate details in the unlikeliest of places. Lucy and her husband have an accident immediately following their wedding and the husband loses his legs, which necessitates their moving to an isolated island off the coast of Scotland for recuperation. All of this is at a pace that hardly feels like a thriller, let alone one set in the middle of war; but the pace is deliberate, contrasting with the high-speed action in the last few chapters.
The story picks up when Faber is given a mission to find out the truth behind Operation Fortitude, the buildup of General Patton’s First US Army Group (FUSAG) for the Allied invasion of Europe through Calais instead of Normandy. This is the first time Godliman and Bloggs not only cross paths with him, tailing a turned spy who gives him the message, but also immediately lose track of him, so good is he. Faber uncovers the truth behind Operation Fortitude – fake tanks, plywood airplanes, sheet metal barracks, cardboard battleships floating on oil drums, and a barrage of phony radio messages – and surmises correctly that Calais is a feint and the real invasion will happen at Normandy. It is now imperative for him to get out of the country with the vital proof that he can personally deliver to Hitler.
This is where the pace picks up. As people in the Double Cross Committee, Bloggs and Godliman know that almost all German spies in England have been captured and have either been jailed, executed, or “turned”. These turned spies are in the process of creating one of the biggest deceptions of the war – feeding the Germans false information that the Allied invasion will be at Calais instead of Normandy. They are also painfully aware that one rouge spy that is not under their control could blow that deception out of the water, especially with the kind of information and proof Faber possesses. Thus begins the race between the hunter and the hunted, with the fate of the Allied invasion hanging in balance.
As Faber needs to personally deliver the proof, an escape plan has been provided in the form of a German submarine that will pick him up off the coast of Scotland. Although not aware of the exact details, Bloggs and Godliman surmise that a mission of such importance would definitely have that contingency built in, and are racing against time to prevent it. One of their biggest disadvantages is they have no clue how Faber looks, but that kind of work is shown to be right up Godliman’s alley. After a painstaking process of cross references, deductions, and enlisting the help of one of Faber’s old boarding house inmates, he not only manages to find a picture but also his real name. Faber’s pedigree is established here as one coming from nobility, and someone close to the Nazi leadership. Also established is his skill as a spy, of seemingly being able to blend in without a ripple, and his utter ruthlessness when the occasion demands it.
Bloggs, on the other hands, always seems to be playing catch up with him. Although a competent spy catcher, he seems to have met his match with Faber. Everything he tries, Faber seems to have anticipated. He is shown reaching locations where Faber was hours or days after he has been there. It is only through a series of lucky breaks that he finally gets back on Faber’s tracks, and an even luckier break in the form of a coastal storm that destroys Faber’s stolen boat and maroons him on Storm Island – the very same island where Lucy, her husband, her child and an old shepherd are the only inhabitants. The attempt nearly debilitates Faber, and he has no choice but to recuperate and rest out the storm. Bloggs and Godliman, having tracked him right up to the point where he has stolen the boat, also have no other option than waiting the storm out. So begins the final act.
While on Storm Island, Faber quickly creates a false identity for himself as well as a reason to explain his being out in the storm that satisfies the inhabitants. Being trained to pick up the subtlest of signals, he senses that the relationship between Lucy and her husband is just a marriage in name, there being no physical or mental intimacy between them (the result of the accident). He finds himself attracted to Lucy, and in the last leg of the mission allows his guard to drop. Lucy, starved not just for love but also for human attention, reciprocates the attraction. Even amid this, though, the professional in Faber is making plans to kill everyone on the island so as to have unhindered access to the submarine.
He gets his opportunity the very next day, as Lucy’s husband discovers both the affair and the fact that Faber is a spy, and takes matters into his own hands by trying to kill him. The altercation leaves Faber injured, but he overcomes and kills the husband. He also kills the shepherd, giving him access to the only radio on the island. But in spite of the means and the opportunity, he cannot bring himself to kill Lucy, which is his undoing. The proof of Operation Fortitude never reaches Germany, and the invasion at Normandy is a success as a result.
What stands out in the book is Follett’s attention to detail. His research about the Double Cross Committee is accurate – the Committee did make use of academicians, historians, mathematicians and other civilians with abilities like Godliman’s to catch and run spies and break the Germans’ ENIGMA encryption system. Notable among these are Alan Turing (known as the father of the modern computer) and Ian Fleming of James Bond fame (who Fleming has admitted he based off one double agent he was running). Equally accurate is his research into the number and quality of the spies sent by the Germans into war-time England, along with the claim of MI5 that all the spies were captured by them. He also captures realistically the mindset of the average Londoner during the war, going from fear and resignation in the early stages to the determinism and resolve of the later stages. But more than all of this, his ace in the hole is his depiction of Faber as the perfect spy.
Faber has mastered the art of being inconspicuous, of never calling attention to himself while at the same time never missing out on any details himself. He spends years creating an identity, and like a professional has more than one identity as a backup. He is shown as being a loner right from his teenage years, which may or may not be an accurate psychological profile of a spy, but it certainly gives him the ability to create and carry off flawlessly a ‘public’ and a ‘private’ persona. He does not kill wantonly, but only as a last resort. And he has the intelligence and mental reflexes to memorize facts and use them in a split second. All of this, incidentally, is what agencies like CIA admit is what they look for in a spy.
It is this research and attention to detail that elevates The Eye of the Needle from a simple thriller to one that becomes a milestone in the genre. You start by expecting a quick read, and instead find yourself transported first to the dark, bombed out lanes of London as Faber and Bloggs play out their high stakes cat-and-mouse game and then to the windswept island in the middle of nowhere as Faber’s one lapse in professionalism leads to a nail-biting finale.
What makes it an even more interesting read are Follett’s opening remarks. The remarks bring to mind another book titled The Druid by Leonard Mosley (which I very definitely will be reviewing in the future) which claim Follet’s fantasy as reality. Bordering on speculation and inviting the reader to use his own imagination, he begins, “It is known that the Germans saw the signs they were meant to see in East Anglia. It is also known that they suspected a trick, and that they tried very hard to discover the truth. That much is history. What follows is fiction. Still and all, one suspects something like this must have happened.”