|Posted by Vladimir Mortsgna on June 21, 2019 at 8:50 AM|
I’ve mentioned that Dick Francis’ Forfeit is the earliest Edgar winner I am sure I had already read before the current exercise of reading them all in order. 1979’s The Eye of the Needle is the first Edgar Winner that I read when it was new. It was a bestseller and a phenomenon in 1978 and very quickly became a hit movie with Donald Sutherland as the title character, the enigmatic Nazi assassin nicknamed “The Needle.” (As mentioned previously, Sutherland named his son, Kiefer, after the screenwriter friend of his who coincidentally wrote 1973’s Edgar Winner, The Lingala Code).
While to thriller fans in the late 70s Ken Follett seemed to come out of nowhere (the back cover even describes him as "bursting on the scene"), and Follett was only 30 when his most successful book was published, he had actually “labored in the vineyard” for a long time since graduating from University College, London in 1970. He wrote 11 novels under 4 different pseudonyms before The Eye of the Needle, including one that probably represents a particularly galling assignment for an inspiring novelist – writing a novelization of someone else’s movie. Once he hit big, he kept his own name and has churned out a fairly consistent string of best-sellers, including historical novels as well as thrillers and mysteries.
The Eye of the Needle seems to owe something to The Day of the Jackal. Like that earlier Edgar winner, it shifts perspective regularly between an expert assassin and the seemingly-overmatched authorities trying to stop him. We first get to know the assassin as Faber – the quest to determine his real name is a major goal of the authorities. Percival Godliman is a widowed Oxford scholar pulled out of his contented life as a Don to return to his past as a spy catcher. There is a third side of the triangle – Lucy Rose is a young Briton who lives on a remote Scottish island with her bitter husband, who has been paralyzed by a car accident before he could start his career in the RAF. Lucy is meant to be an empowered female figure, which can be challenging for a male writer. The fact that it is extremely difficult to figure out her last name is one signal – Faber had already had three names by the time you know Lucy’s full name. Follett also delights in describing her in situations that would seem gratuitous to modern sensibilities and were certainly signs of poor writing even in 1979. Nonetheless, Lucy Rose has an extremely important role to play when Faber washes up on her island.
As with The Day of the Jackal, the author seems a little bit too in love with his assassin. Faber is just too cool – at one point the Nazis promote him twice in absentia, and even cooler, he doesn’t care! He has no interest in hatred of Jews or other persecuted groups and he finds Nazi leadership disgusting and ridiculous – he does what he does for love of the Fatherland. Also, all women find him irresistible, including his landlady, whom he murders in the memorable first chapter when she ruins his deep cover as an English drifter. He receives some orders from a Nazi colleague who he also murders, assuming he will spill secrets to the British if captured, and we certainly have abundant reason to want Faber caught before he acquires some information that triples the stakes.
As with the weakness of the Day of the Jackal, so the strengths. The historical research seems impeccable or if it isn’t, it is certainly convincing, and a slice of World War II is vividly portrayed. The mixing of fictional and historical events is seamless and brilliantly accomplished. And boy do the pages turn.
Categories: Edgar Winner Reviews (No Spoilers)