Like about half the people I know, I have a father with an inexplicable fondness for all things World War II. Particularly films like A Bridge Too Far (which is a total snoozefest), but documentaries, too. Because I’ve spent one too many nights having to watch Hitler’s Secret Love Nest on the Discovery Channel I tend to steer away from the subject, particularly the dry, yes-it-was-all-rather-horrid approach of the British which they employed at least up until the 1980s. I do, however, have a subscription book service, so I sometimes read things I wouldn’t have otherwise picked up. Sometimes this is a curse, sometimes it is a blessing. Sometimes, as it is here, it is a solid and heartfelt meh.
Eye of the Needle tells the story of a German Spy who operates in London in the 1940s. His code name is Die Nadel (the needle) but he goes by the name of Henry Faber. As spies go, this one is unremarkable: insanely clever (aren’t they always in these books), attractive, methodical and devoted. Die Nadel discovers evidence for the D-day landings, an operation which basically depended on luck and the element of surprise. Meanwhile, intelligence operative Percival Godliman, which should not be a character name, discovers what the man is up to and tries to find him and stop him before he smuggles the relevant information to German high command.
There is plenty here that piques the interest, from historical details such as Die Nadel’s landlady growing potatoes in her front yard, to character descriptions, quirks, throwaway lines, and so forth. At the same time Follett seems reluctant to explore any of these alleys lest he loses track of the main road. It’s an approach that sort of works; it keeps the reader’s attention focused on the salient points while also giving the characters a bit more depth, but the way it’s written seems curiously lacklustre, as if only added out of duty. The main plot itself is composed with technical skill – tension is ratcheted up with almost mathematical precision – and though the reader will probably guess the ending from the fact that the outcome of D-day and World War II is pretty well known, it’s still a gripping read in that regard.
It is by no means a brilliant book (in the epilogue, written several decades later, Follett does a lot of back patting, not all of which is deserved), though I suppose it does what it sets out to do. But I missed the flair, the spark, the zest. It is the fictional equivalent of bureaucracy; it’s not happy until it ticks all the boxes and God forbid you try to get a little creative. The limp way in which the characters are described makes them seem more one dimensional than they are. It’s a weirdly flaccid affair.
I know Follett has a lot of acolytes and I won’t say I’ll never read anything of his again, but this particular specimen was more miss than hit for me.