The Eye of the Needle is one of the masterworks of the spy novel genre. A few weeks ago while assembling a spy novel display at my library I thought it would be a good idea to give it a shot. Expecting nothing and just looking for a quick read, I ended up enjoying the hell out of it. The needle referred to in the title is “Die Nadel”, the codename for a German spy implanted deep in England during World War II who discovers the Allies’ plan to land in Normandy on D-Day. He races to get his valuable information back to his masters in Germany while the British intelligence service convince an old professor to come out of retirement and pair him with a young and cynical agent with the sole purpose of tracking down Nazi’s best spy.
The narrative is tight as the skin on Nicole Kidman’s forehead. Few words are wasted and it’s almost as if Earnest Hemingway tried to write a spy novel, all male and grim and full of dry humor. The scenes are gripping without being melodramatic; sometimes the book is almost too low-key in nature, but every so often the author reminds us of the stakes of the game that’s being played – as we all know, the D-Day deception turned the tide of the war itself – and Follett ratchets the tension back up to where it needs to be.
Follett is a master at the old writer’s adage of showing, not telling. Character backgrounds are revealed through their actions and the choices they make during the story. For example, a woman who I thought was a minor character at the start who has misfortune after misfortune piled on her evolves into a major player, forged into one of the strongest characters in the novel.
The sex scenes are very nineteen-seventies, granted, but they don’t distract from the book.
An excellent novel, and well-worth the legendary status.