Thursday, March 24, 2005

Ken Follett: Hornet Flight

Ken Follett, for those that don't know, began his career in the 1970s. You can find a fairly complete biography on his official web site, and it is worth noting that he worked in publishing before becoming a full-time writer. While still doing the day job, he wrote eleven thrillers under other names, and then he came up with a book which was a big hit.

In 1978, Follett wrote a book which was originally called Storm Island, but it has since become more widely known by the title given to it by its US publisher, Eye of the Needle. This won an Edgar award and was made into a film.

Follett thus proves a point that I have made many times on this blog, namely that any and every sort of writer needs to write a considerable body of work before they can be said to have mastered the basic techniques. In Follett's case it took at least eleven books.

It was around this time that Follett began to work very closely with a New York literary agent, Al Zuckerman. Fortunately for those who wish to master the art and science of fiction writing, this collaboration has been well documented. In particular, you can read Zuckerman's book Writing the Blockbuster Novel. (Don't be put off by the title -- it is equally valuable whether your aims are pure and literary or out-and-out commercial.) In that book, Zuckerman provides a long and detailed account of how he and Follett together worked on the outline of Follett's novel The Man from St Petersburg. It is an object lesson in how to develop the potential which is inherent in an idea for a novel.

Now it so happens that I myself was represented by Al Zuckerman for about fifteen years, and at the beginning of the 1980s I too worked closely with Al on the development of a thriller. However, it was always clear to me, and to Al, that not even he could guarantee that the resulting book would be a big seller. As he told me at the time, at any given point he is probably working on about 20 books with writers, and with a bit of luck one of them might make some sort of impact. In my own case, the book (No Holds Barred) was eventually published but did not set the world on fire, and the last time I looked I couldn't even find a secondhand copy on abebooks.

Back to Hornet Flight. In this book, Ken Follett returns to the second world war era, a period that he has dealt with successfully before, notably in The Key to Rebecca. Basing his story partly on real events, Follett gives us a plot in which the British discover, in 1941, that the Germans have an experimental radar station on the coast of Denmark. For a variety of reasons it falls to a young Danish student to get the details of this radar installation back to England in time to ensure that the facility can be destroyed before it leads to the elimination of the British air forces.

Follett has not been a thriller writer for all these years without learning how to do the job. He is extremely skilful. We are therefore presented, for example, not with the usual one-dimensional bad guy but with a rounded character, a complicated man.

On the minus side, I found that there was rather too much background information for my taste; overall, the book is not as tightly organised as The Key to Rebecca, which I often recommend to people who are trying to write a thriller and want a model to study.

It is also the case that Follett manipulates the reader's emotions in ways which I find rather tiresome. Of course, creating emotion is what the craft of fiction is all about, as I said a few days ago, but after many decades of reading thrillers (and after writing a few) I guess I am resistant to writers turning up the tension in too obvious a way.

This criticism particularly applies to the last few chapters of Hornet Flight. Here we find our hero and heroine having to fly an old Hornet Moth aeroplane from Denmark to England. Well now, it would not be much of a story if our two lead characters simply wheeled the plane out of its hangar, got in, and flew safely to their destination. Dear me no. So Follett follows the usual commercial formula and creates problems for them.

I will not weary you, or spoil the book, by telling you what all these problems are. What I will say is that they go on and on and on. Nothing goes right for the hero and heroine. And when one of them has to go out on the wing and refuel in the plane in flight... Well, I just thought it was a bit silly, that's all.

However, no doubt Mr Follett was thinking about how the scene would play in the movie version. And a movie version there will probably be.


Anonymous said...

could you please name and describe some of the problems they had because that would help me because im doing a research on the book and i want to make sure that all my points on the main ideas in the story are correct.

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ArvedHS said...

I realize this is years after the fact, but let's see if a comment can be posted. :-)

You mention Follett creating problems for the hero and heroine (really all the people we are sympathetic to). Absolutely formulaic, a lot of authors do it because it works.

Thing is, in the earlier stages of the book it absolutely stretches credulity that Peter Flemming and some of the other police are so effective and so inspired. To suddenly guess that the wheel chocks for a plane should be examined? Come on. Most everything that follows after is highly tenuous too, so much so that the reader is aware all the time that in the real world the police and counter-intelligence would have been blithely unaware of what was going on.

Ruined the enjoyment of the book for me.

Unknown said...

I found a few flops and I am half way through the book. A car operating on charcoal !!! KF's researcher was surely inspired by BBQ... the cars had generators to produce flammable gas from wood (Holzgas) and charcoal was the residue of the process. Also flying from Scotland to Stockholm in 3 hrs? How if Norway was German occupied.