Gerritsen On Follett's Repellent, Fascinating 'Needle'

Tess Gerritsen

Tess Gerritsen is a physician and writer. Rizzoli & Isles, a television show based on her best-selling thriller series, premieres Monday night on TNT. Jessica Hills hide caption

itoggle caption Jessica Hills

In our series Thrilled to Death, suspense writers talk with us about their work, and then recommend the books they love.

Tess Gerritsen wasn't always a thriller writer — she was on maternity leave from her job as a physician when she began to write fiction. She is now the author of more than 15 thrillers, eight of which detail the cases of Jane Rizzoli, a police detective, and Maura Isles, a medical examiner. Rizzoli & Isles, a new television show based on Gerritsen's novels, debuts Monday night on TNT.

Gerristen says writing the books in the Rizzoli & Isles series has helped her explore aspects of her own personality: Rizzoli is an outsider, working as a female homicide detective in an otherwise all-male unit. Isles is the Mr. Spock of the pair; a medical examiner who wants to understand the logic of why things happen.

Gerristen talks with NPR's Michele Norris about watching horror films with her mother and the authors who have inspired her: Helen MacInnes, Daphne du Maurier and Ken Follett.

You can hear their conversation by clicking the "Listen" link at the top of the page. Below, read Gerritsen's recommendation of Ken Follett's Eye of the Needle.


Eye of the Needle
Eye of the Needle
By Ken Follett
Paperback, 384 pages
Avon
List price: $7.99

Read An Excerpt

Recommended Thriller: 'Eye Of The Needle' By Ken Follett

By Tess Gerritsen

In 1981, I was working as a doctor on the island of Ponape in the South Pacific, living in a house provided by the local hospital. The house had a stash of paperback novels left behind by earlier doctors, and on those quiet tropical nights, there wasn't much else to do but read. So I chose a book off the shelf, a World War II spy thriller called Eye Of The Needle by Ken Follett.

It introduced me to a quiet and unassuming gentleman named Henry Faber, who lives in a London lodging house. The year is 1944 and Faber claims to be a traveling salesman. But in the very first chapter, while sending a coded radio message from his room, he's surprised by his landlady and swiftly kills her with a stiletto stab. Then, with chilling logic, he stages her death to look like an ordinary crime of lust. And he flees.

Needless to say, Henry Faber is not a traveling salesman; he is Germany's most valuable spy in England known as The Needle because of his choice of weapon — the stiletto. The Nazis are desperate to learn where the invading Allied forces will land, and Faber soon discovers that secret. If he can survive long enough to transmit the information to Germany, it will change the course of the war.

So begins a breathtaking chase around England as Faber scrambles to elude British Military Intelligence. He's heartless and brilliant, a villain of the first order. Yet even as his actions repelled me, even as he left a trail of dead bodies, he was such a fascinating character I found myself rooting for him. Follett had cunningly transformed a villain into a hero.

Since this is a World War II novel, and Faber is a German spy, of course someone must eventually bring him down. That someone is an utterly ordinary housewife named Lucy Rose. Unhappily married, Lucy lives with her husband on a lonely island off the English coast. When a shipwrecked Faber washes ashore, Lucy has a reckless affair with the stranger. But she soon discovers his true identity as an enemy spy. Now she's the only one who can stop The Needle and save England. And she does.

It has been 29 years since I read Eye of the Needle. I still think about that book. I eventually left medicine and became a thriller writer myself, and I count Eye of the Needle as the novel that taught me what a real thriller is. It introduced me to "faction," or literature that blends historical facts with fiction. It taught me that the most memorable characters are ordinary folks like Lucy, who find the strength to survive extraordinary circumstances. And it taught me that even when your tale involves a subject as big as world war or Armageddon, the real story, the story that readers most want to read, comes down to the struggles of one or two people — as long as they're people we care about.

Thrilled to Death is produced and edited by Ellen Silva with help from Gabe O'Connor, Chelsea Jones and Miriam Krule.

Excerpt: 'Eye Of The Needle'

Eye of the Needle
Eye of the Needle
By Ken Follett
Paperback, 384 pages
Avon
List price: $7.99

Mr Faber was a quiet one — that was the trouble. He didn’t seem to have any vices. He didn’t smoke, she had never smelled drink on his breath, and he spent every evening in his room, listening to classical music on his radio. He read a lot of newspapers and went for long walks. She suspected he was quite clever, despite his humble job: his contributions to the conversation in the dining-room were always a shade more thoughtful than anyone else’s. He surely could get a better job if he tried. He seemed not to give himself the chance he deserved.

It was the same with his appearance. He was a fine figure of a man: tall, quite heavy around the neck and shoulders, not a bit fat, with long legs. And he had a strong face, with a high forehead and a long jaw and bright blue eyes; not pretty, like a film star, but the kind of face that appealed to a woman. Except for the mouth — that was small and thin, and she could imagine him being cruel. Mr Garden had been incapable of cruelty.

And yet at first sight he was not the kind of man a woman would look at twice. The trousers of his old worn suit were never pressed — she would have done that for him, and gladly, but he never asked — and he always wore a shabby raincoat and a flat docker’s cap. He had no moustache, and his hair was trimmed short every fortnight. It was as if he wanted to look like a nonentity.

He needed a woman, there was no doubt of that. She wondered for a moment whether he might be what people called effeminate, but she dismissed the idea quickly. He needed a wife to smarten him up and give him ambition. She needed a man to keep her company and for — well, love.

Yet he never made a move. Sometimes she could scream with frustration. She was sure she was attractive. She looked in a mirror as she poured another gin. She had a nice face, and fair curly hair, and there was something for a man to get hold of . . . She giggled at that thought. She must be getting tiddly.

She sipped her drink and considered whether she ought to make the first move. Mr Faber was obviously shy — chronically shy. He wasn’t sexless — she could tell by the look in his eyes on the two occasions he had seen her in her nightdress. Perhaps she could overcome his shyness by being brazen. What did she have to lose? She tried imagining the worst, just to see what it felt like. Suppose he rejected her. Well, it would be embarrassing — even humiliating. It would be a blow to her pride. But nobody else need know it had happened. He would just have to leave.

The thought of rejection had put her off the whole idea. She got to her feet slowly, thinking: I’m just not the brazen type. It was bedtime. If she had one more gin in bed she would be able to sleep. She took the bottle upstairs.

Her bedroom was below Mr Faber’s, and she could hear violin music from his radio as she undressed. She put on a new nightdress — pink, with an embroidered neckline, and no one to see it! — and made her last drink. She wondered what Mr Faber looked like undressed. He would have a flat stomach, and hairs on his nipples, and you would be able to see his ribs, because he was slim. He probably had a small bottom. She giggled again, thinking: I’m a disgrace.

She took her drink to bed and picked up her book, but it was too much effort to focus on the print. Besides, she was bored with vicarious romance. Stories about dangerous love affairs were fine when you yourself had a perfectly safe love affair with your husband, but a woman needed more than Barbara Cartland. She sipped her gin, and wished Mr Faber would turn the radio off. It was like trying to sleep at a tea-dance!

She could, of course, ask him to turn it off. She looked at her bedside clock: it was past ten. She could put on her dressing-gown, which matched the nightdress, and just comb her hair a little, then step into her slippers – quite dainty, with a pattern of roses – and just pop up the stairs to the next landing, and just, well, tap on his door. He would open it, perhaps wearing his trousers and singlet, and then he would look at her the way he had looked when he saw her in her nightdress on the way to the bathroom . . .

‘Silly old fool,’ she said to herself aloud. ‘You’re just making excuses to go up there.’

And then she wondered why she needed excuses. She was a mature adult, and it was her house, and in ten years she had not met another man who was just right for her, and what the hell, she needed to feel someone strong and hard and hairy on top of her, squeezing her breasts and panting in her ear and parting her thighs with his broad flat hands, for tomorrow the gas bombs might come over from Germany and they would all die choking and gasping and poisoned and she would have lost her last chance.

So she drained her glass, and got out of bed, and put on her dressing-gown, and just combed her hair a little, and stepped into her slippers, and picked up her bunch of keys in case he had locked the door and couldn’t hear her knock above the sound of the radio.

There was nobody on the landing. She found the stairs in the darkness. She intended to step over the stair that creaked, but she stumbled on the loose carpet and trod on it heavily; but it seemed that nobody heard, so she went on up and tapped on the door at the top. She tried it gently. It was locked.

The radio was turned down, and Mr Faber called out: ‘Yes?’

He was well-spoken: not cockney, or foreign – not anything, really, just a pleasantly neutral voice.

She said: ‘Can I have a word with you?’

He seemed to hesitate, then he said: ‘I’m undressed.’

‘So am I,’ she giggled, and she opened the door with her duplicate key. He was standing in front of the radio with some kind of screwdriver in his hand. He wore his trousers and no singlet. His face was white and he looked scared to death.

She stepped inside and closed the door behind her, not knowing what to say. Suddenly she remembered a line from an American film, and she said: ‘Would you buy a lonely girl a drink?’ It was silly, really, because she knew he had no drink in his room, and she certainly wasn’t dressed to go out; but it sounded vampish.

It seemed to have the desired effect. Without speaking, he came slowly toward her. He did have hair on his nipples. She took a step forward, and then his arms went around her, and she closed her eyes and turned up her face, and he kissed her, and she moved slightly in his arms, and then there was a terrible, awful, unbearable sharp pain in her back and she opened her mouth to scream.

He had heard her stumble on the stairs. If she’d waited another minute he would have had the radio transmitter back in its case and the code books in the drawer and there would have been no need for her to die. But before he could conceal the evidence he had heard her key in the lock, and when she opened the door the stiletto had been in his hand.

Because she moved slightly in his arms, Faber missed her heart with the first jab of the weapon, and he had to thrust his fingers down her throat to stop her crying out. He jabbed again, but she moved again and the blade struck a rib and merely slashed her superficially. Then the blood was spurting and he knew it would not be a clean kill, it never was when you missed with the first stroke.

She was wriggling too much to be killed with a jab now. Keeping his fingers in her mouth, he gripped her jaw with his thumb and pushed her back against the door. Her head hit the woodwork with a loud bump, and he wished he had not turned the radio down, but how could he have expected this?

He hesitated before killing her, because it would be much better if she died on the bed – better for the cover-up which was already taking shape in his mind – but he could not be sure of getting her that far in silence. He tightened his hold on her jaw, kept her head still by jamming it against the door, and brought the stiletto around in a wide slashing arc that ripped away most of her throat, for the stiletto was not a slashing knife and the throat was not Faber’s favoured target.

He jumped back to avoid the first horrible gush of blood, then stepped forward again to catch her before she hit the floor. He dragged her to the bed, trying not to look at her neck, and laid her down.

Excerpted from Eye of the Needle by Ken Follett. Copyright 1978 by Ken Follett. Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.

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