Eye of the Needle, published by Arbor House in 1978, vaulted Ken Follett to nearly immediate success and literary renown. The novel, his first bestseller, received international acclaim from general readers and critics alike. Coming from a tradition of spy thrillers including Ian Fleming and John le Carre, Follett leaves his mark on the genre, partly through Eye of the Needle, by successfully integrating detailed characterization and a racing plot that mimics history. Eye of the Needle shows the literary community that a spy thriller can be documentary rather than just formulaic in its plot, as well as succeed with a strong female protagonist. This essay seeks to highlight what Ken Follett's story teaches readers about best-selling fiction writing through the way Follett reinvents the stereotypical spy novel.
The category of bestsellers dealing with espionage and suspense was growing dramatically at the time of Eye of the Needle's publication. The simple spy or secret agent story was nothing new to the literary world. In fact, Publisher's Weekly reported that, "the suspense drama was clearly the favorite category for reading entertainment" in the 1970s (Freeman 22). Bruce Merry in the Anatomy of the Spy Thriller noted that "one in four of all new books [in 1977 was] a thriller of some sort," (1). Best-selling authors, such as Ian Fleming and John le Carre, already had captured the attention of millions with characters like James Bond and George Smiley. They typified the spy story until this point; their characters played roles as counter-spies and unassuming moles. Fleming was "largely unconcerned with the real world" in his novels, they were more concentrated upon "simply the good versus the bad" (Atkins 74). His novels were also very formulaic: a bad force, usually Russian, threatened the good force, either Britain or the Americas, and Britain's never-say-die secret agent, Bond, was called to save the world from certain catastrophe. Le Carre "popularized the mole who burrowed from within" to destroy confidence and security (Atkins 186). He also brought a "literary fastidiousness to the spy thriller" as a reaction to the methodic Fleming novels (McCormick 108). In the late 1970s, Follett emerged with the documentary thriller, meant to capture readers' attentions with increasingly fast-paced plots and realistic settings. It proved that the genre was still in flux, with the ability to change.
Follett's Eye of the Needle, like Forsyth's The Day of the Jackal, demonstrated this new thriller technique. Their documentary form comprised of a historical premise on which to base the story and a main character who exuded professionalism. Follett's story is set in Britain during World War II. His writing style forms a fiction that weaves into the grid of Britain's actual history. In the preface to Eye of the Needle, Follett gives an account of the historical events surrounding his novel's plot, and then says: "That much is history. What follows is fiction. Still and all, one suspects something like this must have happened" (Follett vii). Follett's novel tells an alternate view of history, fulfilling the "ineradicable popular belief that the real facts of history are never given" (Denning 147). In this manner, he not only arouses the interest and suspicion of his readers leading to an increase in sales figures, but also helps to evolve the documentary thriller niche. As for the professionalism of his characters, Follett's Henry Faber is spy extraordinaire. He melds into the British culture well enough to cause women to lust after him (Follett 7), but still can kill without remorse (Follett 9), and detect elaborate plots meant to catch and destroy him (Follett 138). Faber - as a novel's main character - fits into a group of protagonists who are "mercenaries who mobilize the reader's sympathies by their position in the foreground, even though they are working for the 'wrong' side" (Denning 146). He is simultaneously loved and despised. By including this sort of character and exemplifying the documentary thriller with fictional possibilities painted onto a grid of historical accuracy, Follett's Eye of the Needle makes new headway in this sub-genre of the spy novel.
The professional duality of Henry Faber does more than just classify Eye of the Needle as a documentary thriller, though, it also lends merit to the in-depth characterization that a reader will find in Follett's first bestseller. By developing multi-sided and unpredictable characters, Follett departs from the typical thriller or espionage novel. In earlier forms, the spy would often adhere to a character model that regarded the spy as a "man of integrity, yet prepared to be a criminal" (Atkins 143). As mentioned before, Fleming's characters were mainly divided by whether or not they were good or evil. Bond was flamboyant, rugged, and sexual, and so one sided that it led some critics to call Fleming "careless" about the "psychological credibility" of his characters (Atkins 74). The reader always knew how Bond would act: drinking the same drink, seducing women, and defeating evil. Le Carre, in literary response, made his title protagonist, George Smiley, one who was "faceless" - a man who "reads German poetry" (Atkins 186). Smiley was an unassuming agent, one who drew little attention to himself, unlike the Bond of a decade before. In their book, The Spy Story, Cawelti and Rosenberg commented that the representative spy derived his heroism from, "his physical and psychic self-reliance, his self-possession and containment, [and] his moral and psychological strength" (213). Follett reinvents this spy genre trait by giving his characters the gift of variation.
In Lucy Freeman's compilation of essays about spy and murder mystery novels, she includes a chapter by Follett about a necessary trait to successful novels: characterization. In his essay, The Spy as Hero and Villain, Follett answers the question: is it possible for a character to be both hero and villain? Through the building of characters, Follett says, one can create a more successful suspense story than one otherwise would be able to using poor characters and a good plot (Freeman 74). "A cliffhanger," he says, "is not suspenseful unless you care about the man who is hanging there" (74). In creating his novels' characters, readers of this essay learn that Follett prefers to create not just a contemporary history for them, but a detailed background. Follett has realized that, "plot develops out of character and not the other way around" (Ramet 46). By giving histories, he educates the reader with a description of the character's parents, and thus allows the development of the character's traits from childhood rather than the mere assumption of the typical stereotypes without an explanation about how or why the person became the way they are. He suggests, "doing the unexpected," (Freeman 76) with characters to make them more realistic, and relies on introspection as "a primary literary technique," (Ramet 44) Henry Faber, from Eye of the Needle, is a prime example of both.
Thus, to compose the critically successful spy novel, Follett sought to create characters with history and more than one personality layer. Faber, for instance, had to be "a convincing villain" with "some likeable traits" (Freeman 76). Examining Faber, the reader will see Follett's innovative characterization. A German spy who infiltrates the British defenses and almost costs and allied defeat in World War II, Faber is less devilish than one may assume. He becomes physically sick, for instance, after every kill. "He had killed before, so he expected the reaction - it always came? he threw up," writes Follett (9). Faber still sees the British as the enemy, and he justifies his actions with the war, but he is human also, not a bloodthirsty animal. The reader learns intricacies of Faber's personality throughout the novel. He, "was proud of his ability to crosswords in English" (114), feared failure (56), and could be sensitive with a woman (195). At the same time, he could murder, lie, and commit adultery. Faber is a complex character; one made vulnerable by Follett's insistence on characterization. For this reason, the reader does not know how he will react - they are taught by his previous actions to expect the unexpected. As the novel concludes, then, Faber's characterization adds to the excitement by leaving readers guessing as to his next move.
Faber's complexity is not the only character that separates Eye of the Needle from other best-selling spy thrillers, however. Throughout the novel, readers come across others who also do not behave as one would expect them to in this type of genre. It is this novelty that makes Follett distinct. In the first chapter, for instance, Follett reveals the inward thoughts of a relatively small character, Mrs. Garden. She was a lonely woman, in need of a man's company. Follett gives her a past - a deceased husband - a problem with alcohol, and a guilty conscience about her sexual desires. Her inner conflict contributes to the book, rather than her physical actions alone. The reader feels for her and associates with her. As she contemplates seducing Faber, Follett poses the question: "What did she have to lose" (7). Shockingly, the answer was - everything.
Later, Follett introduces David and Lucy, a love-stricken pair who dabble in pre-marital sex, get married, and then must deal with the consequences of a car crash that leaves David paralyzed from the waist down. The reader not only observes their transition into marriage and life on Storm Island, but also sees the communication breakdown and lack of sexual intimacy between the two. Their characters do not merely play a role for Follett's overall plot, they add to the depth of his spy thriller by giving life and history to two supposedly minor characters. By forming their personalities early, Follett creates an emotional tie to the characters and can later use that emotion to promote suspense. He adds the thrill to the thriller through characterization.
Thus far, this essay has shown how Follett's Eye of the Needle demonstrates how a bestseller can create a new genre, the documentary thriller, and showing that the use of characterization adds suspense to this new classification. Now, it will explore how the combination of these two elements produces the freedom of sexual expression and the existence of a female heroine. Other best-selling spy novels do not transcend this unwritten gender boundary. "Sex nearly always strikes a false note in the spy novel," Atkins writes, "the men may be men, but most of the women are much closer to automatic girls" (272). Atkins also says that for most spy novels, "the important thing is to keep sex easy, and to get on with the major lines of the story" (272). Follett's novel does not follow this trend. Lucy is far from an automated girl, who plays her role as sexual pawn and unthinking minor character. She has strength, compassion, vulnerability, lust, and heroism.
These characteristics allow for Lucy to emerge as the novel's heroine by the end, thus continuing to reform the typical spy bestseller. Follett combines his tale of suspense with a love story and sees it "as a turning point in the thriller form since for the first time it could include a strong female character" (Ramet 43). Unlike other weak and stereotypical female characters, in the Bond novels for instance, Lucy's character grows in its depth and strength with the progression of the novel. After Faber crashes onto Storm Island, it only takes a matter of days to transforms her from sex-starved wife to sex-satisfied lover. Her sexual yielding turns into gender dominance by the end, as she kills Faber and saves the war. She makes him vulnerable in passion, and then exposes him in rage. By creating this female heroine, Follett shows how, in his spy thriller, "love conquers all and societal order will be restored" (Ramet 52). Lucy participates in both the conquering and the restoration. The fact that Follett, "isn't ashamed to use all the traditional thriller devices of entertainment to serious ends?war, love, disappointment, and hope," further differentiates Eye of the Needle from previous spy thrillers (Ramet 52). He crosses gender boundaries and attracts women readers through his realistic and complex female characters.
Consequently, Eye of the Needle has garnered literary lauding from those familiar with the traditional spy thriller. Follett's novel reinvented espionage patterns and expectations, widening the realm of successful possibilities for spy novelists. In summation of Follett's contributions to the spy novel, Follett expert Carlos Ramet notes:
"[Follett contributes through] the inclusion of the strong, believably strong female characters?and through the expression of a post-1960s egalitarianism that stands in marked contrast to either the schoolboy's adulation of the damsel in distress or the tough guys disdain for 'dames' and domesticity" (Ramet 3).
He is decidedly different than his predecessors, using history and characterization as the colors at his artistic disposal when painting the perfect suspense novel. Spy novels before Follett's Eye of the Needle
had progressed from Fleming's stark yet shallow good versus evil duality, to le Carre's meticulous and lengthy prose. Follett arrives to the literary scene with new convictions about the spy thriller. Looking closely at Eye of the Needle
teaches one about the changing spy genre and the category of best-selling literature as a whole.
Atkins, John. The British Spy Novel: Styles in Treachery
. Riverrun Press: New
Denning, Micheal. Cover Stories: a Narrative and Ideology in the British Spy
. Routledge and Kegan Paul: London, 1987.
Freeman, Lucy. The Murder Mystique: Crime Writers on Their Art. Frederick
Unger Publishing: New York, 1982.
Follett, Ken. Eye of the Needle
. Arbor House: New York, 1978.
Who's Who in Spy Fiction
. McCormick, Ed.
Merry, Bruce. Anatomy of the Spy Thriller
. Gill and Macmillan: Dublin, 1977.
Ramet, Carlos. Ken Follett: the Transformation of a Writer
. Bowling Green
State University Popular Press: Bowling Green, 1999.