|Posted by Vladimir Mortsgna on July 17, 2019 at 11:50 AM|
So, the major twist in The Eye of the Needle is very well done. Faber, the Nazi assassin, is busy following his orders (the orders he received from the colleague he then murdered) to gather intelligence about an alarming Allied troop buildup in Kent and environs. What he discovers to his astonishment is that the military buildup is fake, mostly featuring plywood cutouts of planes designed to fool Nazi spy planes flying overhead. The region in question is convenient to the nearest part of France, Calais, so Faber realizes that if there is not really a buildup to attack Calais, that the Allies must have a serious attack force somewhere else. Faber knows that if he doesn’t alert Nazi high command, the Nazi army will be wasting at least some of its defensive strength at the wrong place.
Most readers in 1978 probably knew that we did have a different attack site planned – Normandy, about a four hour drive from Calais. What is somewhat better known now but few people knew in 1978 was that the fake army across from Calais really existed, and was part of an extensive and brilliant network of tricks to try to attain an element of surprise when Nazi-occupied Europe was to be attacked. Normandy was known to the Nazis to be another plausible attack site, but the Allies successfully induced the Nazi High Command to dilute their defensive forces among several suspected targets, including Calais, and to consider the Normandy attack to be a possible distraction from the real event. This web of trickery included double agents, fake radio chatter, convincing the Nazis that Patton was in charge of the Calais invading force, and dead bodies planted with bogus papers. I had somehow gotten the impression that Ian Fleming had been involved in some of this planning but I can’t find confirmation of that. But actor David Niven, star of Around the World in 80 Days, was involved in recruiting another British actor who resembled General Montgomery to hang around different locations in an attempt to convince the Nazis that no invasion could be imminent (since the faux-Montgomery was nowhere near France).
So, if someone had gotten the news to Berlin that there was no possibility of attack from Kent, and had managed to convince them, D-Day could have gone very differently. And Faber has a roll of pictures. He heads to the rendezvous point where he is to meet his submarine. And that landing point is near the remote Scottish island where Lucy and David Rose and their toddler have taken shelter from the war and David’s bitter disappointment at not being involved. During a ridiculously cinematic storm, Faber ingratiates himself with the family, and before long he and Lucy are lovers. Not much longer after that, Lucy realizes who he is and that he must be stopped. In one of the most successful endless chase sequences in the history of literature, they basically chase each other around the island to stop Faber from meeting the submarine. From afar, Godliman and his team do surprisingly well at figuring out where Faber it is, but since Follett is pulling the strings, there isn’t much Godliman can do to help Lucy for most of her plight.
In a previous installment, I gave my top 10 Edgar-winning novels from the first 25 years. The Eye of the Needle was the 26th Edgar winner and at this point I would put it somewhere between 3rd and 6th. It is a terrific read, outstanding research and plausibility, and despite Lucy being written by a man basically creating the woman of his dreams, she comes alive as a real person, as does Faber. Godliman is somewhat less generously characterized, and the rest are just props.
Two flaws. The first is a recurring one. Once again, an author wants his principle protagonist to be perceived as a flawed character, to whom the readers with their own flaws can relate and root for them to overcome their past. Lucy has a torrid affair with Faber with her paralyzed husband basically in the next room. This does make their later quest to kill each other even more interesting. But Follett, like many other authors before and after (and one director of sci-fi blockbusters that you may be able to think of), can’t leave his creation alone and goes back to provide so many justifications for her behavior that it is hard to see the flaws again. He goes to great pains to describe how her paralyzed husband is capable to marital relations, but he is just too bitter and resentful and treats Lucy cruelly. Every reader and author may have a different view on marital fidelity and if there is ever a justification for breaking it. But from an authorial standpoint, it is inexcusable. Either make the character flawed or don’t. It was your decision to make her flawed so don’t then change your mind – it’s a bait and switch and another sign of an author who is dangerously in love with his character. I see this issue so often that it needs a name – I am going to call it the “Shameless Shame” problem.
Next is the “Good Nazi” problem. As I said, Follett seems to have as much of a bromantic crush on Faber as the Pygmalionic crush he has on Lucy. He repeatedly emphasizes that Faber doesn’t believe in the Nazi cause or persecution of Jews and that he finds Hitler and most of his circle disgusting. Faber is fighting for the Fatherland. When we are treated to glimpses of Hitler’s circle strategizing over the War (which is usually done to create excuses for highly-placed historical characters to praise Faber), likewise there seem to be “good Nazis” and “bad Nazis”. Whether it makes sense morally to say that someone can be a good soldier in a bad cause is clearly a moral question of the highest importance, and literature should definitely explore it. But Follett doesn’t explore it – the book just assumes it. Then there is a coda set in 1970 when the biggest conflict between England and Germany is a soccer game and everyone is allies again. The first time I read The Eye of the Needle, and the most recent time, I was baffled and betrayed by this coda, which basically seems to cut the rug out of the stakes that engaged the reader through the book. This finale also shows that Lucy was married off to one of her rescuers, which is nice, but I didn’t and don’t see the point of hooking the reader on a tiny concentrated conflict, convincing us that the entire War depends on it, and then seemingly emphasizing that it was just a blip. After all, England and France were mortal enemies for hundreds of years but then teamed up to defeat Hitler (and the Kaiser before them), but that isn’t a good thing to cheer up Joan of Arc as she approaches the stake.
Categories: Edgar Winner Reviews (Spoilers)