Eye of the Needle: Book Review
Eye of the Needle (also published as Storm Island), written by Ken Follett and published in 1978, wasn’t his first novel, but it was his first big hit, selling millions of copies and launching his career as a best-selling author.
Eye of the Needle: Logline
During World War Two, a ruthless German spy in Britain learns the secrets of D-Day and must escape back to Germany to change the course of the war. But when he’s shipwrecked on a small Scottish island, he meets a woman who might just be a match for him.
Eye of the Needle: Plot Summary
Warning: My reviews include spoilers. Major spoilers are blacked out like this [blackout]secret[/blackout]. To view them, just select/highlight them.
It’s 1940. Henry Faber is a German spy in Britain, codenamed ‘The Needle’.
Faber is halfway through radioing information to Berlin when his widowed landlady, who’s in love with him, lets herself into his room. Faber thinks she will realise that he is a spy, so he kills her. Afterwards, he assumes a prepared backup identity.
Meanwhile, a young British woman, Lucy, marries an RAF officer, David Rose. Leaving their wedding, David drives too fast and crashes into a lorry. Lucy only sustains bruises, but David has to have both legs amputated. They move to Storm Island, off the east coast of Scotland, to recuperate. David can’t come to terms with his injury and his moodiness means they become estranged. Lucy takes comfort in bringing up her son, who she conceived before the accident. The only other occupant of the island is Tom, a shepherd, who has a radio to stay in contact with the mainland.
Now it’s 1944, and the D-Day invasion is approaching. The German high command can’t decide whether to position the crucial armoured divisions in the Pas de Calais or Normandy. They send a courier to contact their best spy in Britain, Faber, and ask him to discover where the invasion forces are located. Faber accepts the orders and then kills the courier for security.
Faber discovers the American army in Norfolk is a fake, comprising inflatable tanks and empty tents. He reasons that, as the army opposite Calais is a fake, the target of the invasion must be Normandy. Although ordered to return to Germany, he gives photos of the deception to a courier as a backup. The courier is under surveillance by MI5, and they seize the photos, quickly realising they must stop Faber.
MI5 connect the landlady’s murder to Faber, and one of her other tenants identifies him from an old graduation photograph.
Faber heads towards Aberdeen, Scotland, where a U-boat is waiting off the coast to take him, and his photos, back to Germany.
MI5 attempt to intercept Faber on the train to Liverpool, but Faber spots their man, kills him and escapes. He steals a car from a couple of old ladies, who he doesn’t kill, and the car takes him to Scotland before breaking down. He then gets a lift to Aberdeen with a local magistrate.
In Aberdeen, Faber steals a small trawler and sets out to sea to meet the U-boat. A violent storm destroys his boat and almost kills him, but he fortuitously beaches on Storm Island before collapsing, half-dead…
Lucy [blackout]and David take Faber in, with Faber and Lucy falling for each other almost on sight.[/blackout]
David [blackout]suspects Faber is a spy after he finds the photographs. He confronts him, and Faber kills him. Faber tells Lucy that David is staying at the shepherd’s cottage, but she discovers David’s body on the beach and realises the truth. She escapes and heads to the shepherd’s cottage, hoping to use the radio to alert the authorities. Faber chases after her, also needing to use the radio to contact the U-boat.[/blackout]
At the cottage, [blackout]Lucy and Faber battle over the radio. Eventually he wins but, as a last resort, Lucy sticks her fingers in the light-socket and blows all the fuses.[/blackout]
Faber [blackout]abandons the radio and goes downstairs to find Lucy has survived the electric shock. He knows he should kill Lucy, but is too much in love with her to do so. Instead, he runs to the cliffs and starts climbing down, planning to swim to the U-boat.[/blackout]
Lucy [blackout]follows Faber to the cliffs and throws a rock down at him. The rock hits him, and he falls and dies.[/blackout]
Eye of the Needle: Analysis
In Eye of the Needle, Follett’s plotting is solid and his writing is straightforward. The plot is a twist on the archetypal ‘Man on the Run’ that I call a Straight Run (see Spy Novel Plots).
The ‘Straight Run’ Plot
- Is involved in an Inciting Incident with a group of Antagonists.
- Realises they are not safe from the Antagonists.
- Is also not safe from the authorities, as they are tricked or controlled by the Antagonists.
- Goes on the run, pursued by both the Antagonists and the authorities.
- Involves one or more Allies in their escape (Optionally, there is a romance sub-plot with one of the Allies).
- Narrowly avoids capture and death (or is captured and escapes) by both the Antagonists and the authorities.
- Persuades the authorities they should work together to stop the Antagonists.
- Confronts the Antagonists and stops (or fails to stop) them.
The twists that Ken Follett applies to the archetypal plot in Eye of the Needle are that the Protagonist, Faber, is an anti-hero; the Antagonists, MI5, are the Authorities; and the Protagonist’s romance-subplot Ally, Lucy, also becomes an Antagonist.
In Eye of the Needle as in The Day of the Jackal and The Eagle Has Landed, the reader quickly realises that the protagonist cannot succeed. Charles de Gaulle was not assassinated, Churchill was not kidnapped, and the D-Day landings did not fail. So in all three books, the Protagonist must fail.
The Protagonists of the three novels are also all antiheroes: an assassin and two Nazis.
Jack Higgins dealt with the anti-heroic nature of telling the story from the German point of view by making his protagonist, Steiner, highly sympathetic. Frederick Forsyth solved the problem by turning the story into a ‘procedural’ and basking in the details of the case. Ken Follett takes a middle path in Eye of the Needle. The reader can admire Faber’s professionalism and skill and sympathise with his infatuation with Lucy, and we see the chase in some detail and from many angles.
All three novels use the standard thriller techniques of keeping the action and the cliffhangers coming, but Ken Follett also deploys another technique – high stakes.
In Eye of the Needle, Ken Follett continually makes the reader aware of the enormous stakes. He isn’t afraid to throw in cameos from high-placed figures: Hitler, Churchill, Admiral Canaris, Rommel and several other British and German generals all appear for a quick scene. These scenes all emphasise that Faber holds the key to victory or defeat in his hands – if he escapes, D-Day will fail. Hitler himself announces he will listen only to Faber. Churchill urges MI5 to capture Faber or the allies will lose the war.
In Eye of the Needle, the secret of the D-Day deception that Faber discovers and tries to report to Germany is basically a MacGuffin – an item that’s of no direct plot relevance, that the characters are desperate to possess.
Still, the secret of D-Day is a good MacGuffin for a thriller set in WW2, because everyone knows how high the stakes were. It doesn’t detract from the story at all that the secret could be anything and the story would barely change. This is the difference between using a MacGuffin well and using one as a lazy plot device.
Apart from Lucy, and to an extent Faber, the characters in Eye of the Needle are rather thin. We learn little about them and there seem to rather too many interchangeable MI5 officers, policemen, coastguards and RAF officers.
Ironically, Faber, the ruthless spy who killed anyone who saw his face for most of the novel, can’t bring himself to resolve his problems by simply killing Lucy. [blackout]She has no such qualms, setting a dog on Faber, chopping his fingers off, and finally following the man who has just spared her life to the cliffs and proceeding to throw rocks at him.[/blackout]
Follet doesn’t explain Lucy’s motivation in putting the war effort before her own potential happiness with the man she’s fallen in love with, but because the reader understands the stakes, and because of the pace of the story, the novel leaps this potential stumbling block.
The truth behind Eye of the Needle: Operation Fortitude
The D-Day landings were critical to the defeat of Nazi Germany. If the Germans knew where the landing was going to take place, they could have built up their forces in the invasion area, making the defeat of the invasion a possibility.
The Allies staked everything on misleading the Germans into holding their reserves away from the invasion area. They did this by convincing them that the main D-Day landings were to occur around Calais and that the Normandy landings were a feint. The Allies called this deception Operation Fortitude. It involved creating a fictitious formation, the First United States Army Group, which used fake tanks, aircraft, buildings and radio traffic to create the illusion of an army being formed to land at Calais.
In reality, there were no German spies in Britain, as MI5 had picked them all up. In fact, the British had ‘turned’ many of them and they were a crucial part of the deception, broadcasting fake intelligence about how the First United States Army Group was supposedly massing to strike at Calais.
See Double Cross! How a British spy called Garbo saved D-Day for more details.
Eye of the Needle: My Verdict
A classic ‘man on the run’ thriller with a couple of nice twists. Recommended.
Eye of the Needle: The Movie
Eye of the Needle was filmed in 1981, starring Donald Sutherland and Kate Nelligan, and directed by Richard Marquand. The ‘Storm Island’ scenes were filmed on the Isle of Mull in Scotland.
The movie version of Eye of the Needle is a faithful adaptation of the novel, hardly altering the story at all, though compressing the minor characters, and reducing the chase to Scotland to a couple of shots of Donald Sutherland on a motorbike. The ending differs slightly from the book, although it’s thematically the same.
Donald Sutherland makes a good Faber, portraying implacable ruthlessness well, and Kate Nelligan is believable in her scenes as Lucy.
One scene, where Faber and Lucy both admit their secrets, is electrifying. The rest of the film is a straightforward thriller. The special effects look a bit dated in places, such as during Faber’s shipwreck, but the mock-up planes are at least deliberately not very realistic.
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