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Eye of the Needle

Critique • QuotesAt the movies

Storm Island, first editionFirst edition
Ken Follett
Publication details ▽ Publication details △

Original Title
Storm Island

First book publication
1978, Britain

Literature form

Thriller, espionage

Writing language

Author's country

approx. 102,000 words

What might have happened

A superior espionage novel can engage your sympathy with opposing characters. Although at the fantasy end of the thriller spectrum one can dreamily identify with a super-heroic agent, like James Bond, while cheering for the demise of a villainous mastermind out to destroy the world, the more sophisticated thriller portrays relatable figures on both sides, all with their own motivations, doubts and fears.

Eye of the Needle, first published in the UK as Storm Island, does this in spades. Yet it remains a tautly woven novel. That's Ken Follett's achievement in this first of his popular thrillers. There's little division between the sharp drawing of the setting and characters and the suspenseful drama—the action—they're embroiled in.

In Eye of the Needle the personal foibles of the British spycatchers are sketched out just enough to stir our involvement in them, as they chase a Nazi spy who has information he's trying to get to Germany—information that could change the course of the war.

Somewhat more fleshed out are backgrounds for newlyweds Lucy and David Rose who have nothing to do with the espionage game but come to play crucial roles in the plot. Their marriage is tragically affected by an auto accident, sending a disabled husband, a frustrated young wife into seclusion with a toddler and an old man on a barren North Sea island. Yes, Storm Island, where the Nazi spy ends up—with his would-be captors in pursuit.

Pathological dedication

But it's the spy we actually spend the most time with as he flees toward a rendezvous with a U-boat. And it's him we come to know best. Or rather, we try to get to know. Partly the attraction is that the agent, known to his German masters as "Die Nadel" (The Needle), is as confusing a personality as the disguises he adopts to evade detection.

On one hand he's a stiletto-wielding killer, unhesitatingly taking lives with frigid efficiency when he feels his identity is at risk. The man's dedication to his own survival is practically pathological.

But he also has to suppress revulsion over what he does, which indicates some measure of humanity. It's also implied he's provided German bombers wrong targeting information to prevent destruction of certain beautiful buildings. And when he eventually hooks up with Lucy (you had to know this was coming) his discipline falters.

Actually Lucy and the spy's affair may be the least credible, most sensationalist part of the novel. It turns out the Nazi's cold-blooded mastery of all spycraft extends to the bedroom. Die Nadel is a sexual superman, surpassing James Bond in the art of pleasing women.

These lengthy explicit passages of night-long lovemaking may have been shocking when the novel came out, but they border on tawdry today, especially given what we know of the man. They also serve to undercut the image of Lucy as the plucky hero of the story as it develops.

Nonetheless, for most of the novel as Die Nadel is chased across Britain, as the story unfolds from his perspective, a reader cannot help but be intrigued by the man, to actually root for his success—even as he performs horrible deeds in the service of Nazi Germany. That's what point of view does to you.

Reviewers have raved over the author's research for Eye of the Needle. This is probably justified, right down to credible appearances by Winston Churchill and Adolf Hitler, no less.

What is most impressive though is that, despite us knowing Nazi spies failed to deliver the vital information Germany needed to win the war, we're still kept in suspense until the very end over whether Die Nadel will succeed.

In the book's clever preface, Follett even tells us the following story is fiction, though "one suspects something like this must have happened".

Maybe or maybe not. But it's real enough while we're reading it.

— Eric


Critique • QuotesAt the movies

See also:

The Thirty-Nine Steps

Gorky Park

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