It is 1944 and weeks before D-Day. The Allies are disguising their invasion plans with a phoney armada of ships and planes. Their plan would be scuppered if an enemy agent found out… and then, Hitler’s prize agent, “The Needle,” does just that. Hunted by MI5, he leads a murderous trail across Britain to a waiting U-Boat. But he hasn’t planned for a storm-battered island, and the remarkable young woman who lives there.
A lot of wartime secrets came out in the mid-Seventies. I read a number of nonfiction books about intelligence and espionage in World War Two. One was Bodyguard of Lies by Anthony Cave Brown, about how the Allies deceived the Germans into deploying their resources in the wrong places.
In particular, there was a fascinating, amusing and very elaborate deception for the D-Day Invasion. The Allies created an entire phoney army in East Anglia, including inflatable tanks, cardboard Spitfires and barracks with roofs but no walls. It was created only to be photographed from the air by German reconnaissance planes. The aim was to fool the Germans into thinking that the army was building up in the east, indicating that the invasion would come across the narrow part of the channel at Calais. And it worked!
The Germans left the beaches of Normandy weakly defended and allowed the Allied invasion forces to get a toehold. My idea was simple. If one German spy had seen the inflatable tanks, the cardboard Spitfires and the whole mock-up from the ground and got back to Germany with the information, then the Germans could have been prepared for the D-Day landings at Normandy and history might have taken a different course.
This was the best story idea I had ever had and I had also reached a breakthrough point in my development as a writer. I planned the book carefully and wrote a detailed outline. I researched the period thoroughly and I put a lot of the detail into the story. It gave the book a feel for the grain of every day life, something that my work had never had before. The richness of detail slows the writing down, but that was what my work needed. My early books were all too brisk and things happened too quickly. With Eye of the Needle, I got the pace right for the first time. The reader doesn’t want you to be too brisk, especially in a tense, dramatic situation.
The spy, Die Nadel, has got the crucial information, he knows how important it is, and he has to get home. But he has got to travel the length of England to rendezvous with a U-boat in the North Sea. In the early days, I would have had him make that journey in a few pages and there wouldn’t have been any suspense. By the time I wrote Eye of the Needle, I realised that the reader wants a tense situation to go on for a long time. The writer has to keep on thinking of new things that could go wrong.
Even before I finished it, I knew Eye of the Needle was much better than anything I had done before. My ex-wife remembers me sitting at the typewriter saying, “this is absolutely terrific.” My agent, Al Zuckerman, also realised how good it was. After years of telling me my books weren’t good enough to sell on the American market, he said, “this is going to be a huge international best seller and you are going to have tax problems.” He was right.
It came out in 1978 and did well all over the world. The British publisher, who had commissioned it on the basis of a short outline, did not see the potential, and it was published in a low-key way in the UK. Twenty years later, Eye of the Needle is still selling in 25 or 30 languages and new editions are published constantly. It would take an accountant a week to work out the exact numbers, but it has sold about ten million copies.
Listen to Ken’s view on Eye of the Needle
Listen to an excerpt
- “Really thrilling!” — New York Times Book Review
- “An absolutely terrific thriller, so pulse-pounding, so ingenious in its plotting, and so frightening realistic that you simply cannot stop reading. This World War Two espionage tale is right up there with the best of them – masterful on several levels… a blazing and unexpected climax!” — Publishers Weekly
Eye of the Needle by Ken Follett — Futura, London 1978. Originally published as “Storm Island”.
L’Arme à l’oeil in French by Robert Laffont
Die Nadel in German by Lübbe
La Cruna dell ’Ago in Italian by Mondadori
El ojo de la aguja in Spanish by Grijalbo
De naald in Dutch by Uitgeverij Unieboek
Also published in many other languages, and available as an audiobook and as an ebook.
Eye of the Needle was filmed in 1981, starring Donald Sutherland as Faber and Kate Nelligan as Lucy.
See the Filmography pages for more information.