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Jackdaws

Riveting suspense… and great entertainment

Are you feeling besieged by all the news of terrorism, anthrax, air safety? Numbed by the conflict between good and evil? I offer an antidote or at least a powerful palliative: “Jackdaws” by Ken Follett (Dutton, 464 pages, $26.95). Good is good. Bad is bad. No mistaking it.

Is it still possible to establish and maintain riveting suspense over the relatively primitive espionage operations of the Second World War? No mistaking it.

Maybe I am out of sync with current tastes and interests. I read very little entertainment fiction. Reading one book or more a week for a living – among considerable other duties – robs me of the opportunity of reading simply for entertainment except when I assign myself such books as Follett’s, out of curiosity about huge-selling popular mass fiction. And I am old enough to remember the epic triumphs and defeats and the many heroic echoes of World War II. This story hold for me a resonance that may be very different from that of someone for whom that salvation of civilisation – for that is the manner in which people unquestioningly thought of WWII – is dusty history.

D-Day, the Allied Invasion of France, as Follett puts it, “was the largest military operation in human history: thousands of boats, hundreds of thousands of men, millions of dollars, tens of millions of bullets. The future of the world depended on the outcome. Yet this vast force could be repelled so easily, if things went wrong in the first few hours.”

The establishing premise of the book is that the most critical single element of Allied success that could be influenced by action before the moment of invasion is to cripple German strategic communication. In Follett’s novel, that is largely dependent on a deep-underground complex of telephone lines that went through a main military exchange in the town of Sainte-Cecile, in France’s Champagne district.

The lady is a spy

For reasons that seem entirely plausible, it’s decided that destruction of that deeply bunkered communication center can only be accomplished by sending in a posse of French-speaking female spies – who, at the outset of the book, are not available or even known of, except for the novel’s heroine, Felicity Clairet, known to all as “Flick”.

Therein lies the tale – Follett’s 16th book, most of the others having also been thrillers and often major international best sellers. “The First Day”; the first chapter, is Sunday, May 28, 1944. “The Last Day”; the heading for Chapter 52, is Tuesday, June 6, 1944.

D-Day

Flick is an Englishwoman who speaks impeccable French. She is 28, with a rank of Major in the Special Operations Executive, which is responsible for carrying out sabotage. She is married to Michel, a French philosophy teacher who is operating in the French underground resistance.

There is a wonderful feminist womanhunt, Flick’s accumulating on very short notice a crew of five or six French-speaking women who are willing to parachute into Nazi-occupied France in the dark and who are expert at handling explosives, at telecommunications engineering or simply at killing people.

That’s a recruiting job! Code-named the Jackdaws – after that small, inquisitive subspecies of crow – their saga makes compelling reading.

The chapters alternative between the vantage points of Flick and German Major Dieter Franck, a senior counter-espionage officer. Franck is quite engaging; one might say civilized except that he is a legendary interrogator of prisoners, and an established expert in torture.

Follett gives him enough complexity, and a bit of humanity, to allow him an emotionally convincing major role: “Some men enjoyed torturing prisoners… They smiled when their victims screamed, they got erections as they inflicted wounds… But they were not good interrogators, for they focussed on pain rather than information. The best torturers were men such as Dieter who loathed the process from the bottom of their hearts.”

Battle of wits

Franck is ultimately superficial, without a morale core, but he is smart and intensely motivated, a true believer, though his feelings about the Nazis’ methodical program of genocide are not examined, leaving his character palatable, if a bit lame. Thus the story is a tennis match between Dieter and Flick, two operators with capacities for remarkable natural leadership, of analytic swiftness of mind, of a great deal of convincing experience in their crafts – Flick commanding and running underground operations; Dieter tracking and interrogating spies.

People are in motion all the time. Follett’s sentences are short. Yes, even with perpetual activity, there is suspense left at the end of almost every one of the 53 chapters but the last.

Follett is punctilious about detail. He obviously has done serious historical research and knows France and the French. There is an easy comfort, a sureness, about the texture of the narrative. From the beginning, tension is strong and well woven with subplots.

There is marital tension between Flick and Michel and a French love interest on Franck’s part. There is elaborate and entirely convincing bureaucratic and organisational competition on both sides – MI6 vs Flick’s operation, the Gestapo vs Dieter Franck’s personal instruction from Field Marshall Erwin Rommel to break the French Resistance before the expected Allied invasion.

All in all, Jackdaws is great entertainment – perhaps the perfect relief from an overdose of news that’s laced with anthrax, terrorism and war.

Michael Pakenham, The Baltimore Sun, 17 November 2001