A brief guide to Ken Follett
With a back catalogue ranging from edge-of-your-seat thrillers to epic Medieval sagas, Ken Follett’s novels are as compelling as they are varied
The old saying goes that authors should only write about what they know—but Ken Follett proves this couldn’t be further from the truth. As one of the world’s most successful fiction authors (clocking up over 160 million sales), Follett’s novels range from gripping spy thrillers to epic Medieval ensemble tales—each depicting locations, details and characters in such striking depth it’s hard to believe he didn’t experience or know them personally.
Born in Cardiff in 1949 to a tax inspector and a housewife, a strict religious upbringing meant Follett’s childhood entertainment revolved around reading. Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books were an early favourite, although, as he shared with Goodreads, Live and Let Die by Ian Fleming at the tender age of 12, “blew me away”. It was these early literary experiences that fuelled Follett when he began penning fiction, as he recalled in the same interview: “My aim was to give readers the kind of excitement I had got from James Bond.”
The family moved to London when Follett was ten. He excelled in school and went on to study Philosophy at University College, London—a subject he credits with helping develop his writing, thanks to its encouragement of deeper thinking. After graduating in 1970, Follett secured a spot on Thompson Regional Newspapers’ graduate journalism course, working as a trainee reporter on a local paper in south Wales.
Three years later he returned to London for a role at Evening News, but was left uninspired by assignments—so, to satiate his imagination and provide additional income, Follett began writing fictional spy thrillers in his spare time. Earlier novels achieved some success, but it was the release of his 11th tome, Eye of the Needle, in 1978, that ensured his reporting days were left far behind.
The thrill of success
While Eye of the Needle falls into the same genre as his preceding books, it is the first Follett credits as being “absolutely terrific”. A wrangle between publishers saw paperback rights sold for $800,000, and they were correct to have gotten excited: since publication, over 10 million copies have been snapped up, and it was named by the BBC in 2019 as one of 100 novels to have shaped the world.
As such, it’s an ideal launch point for those new to Follett’s work. Set during the Second World War, the story follows “The Needle”—Hitler’s leading agent who’s sent to English shores to uncover the Allies’ invasion plans. However, after gaining the information required, The Needle’s return to Germany isn’t quite so straight-forward—and the reader is taken on a tense journey filled with twists and turns.
Eye of the Needle is a prime example of Follett’s ability to meticulously plan and research, create multi-faceted characters, and develop plotlines that keep us hanging—and, for those whose spy appetites are well whetted, Triple and Code To Zero are ideal follow-on reads.
A literary U-turn
As someone who made their name in thrillers and told the Guardian that developing a feeling of suspense is “the centre of my interest as a writer”, it’s understandable that Pillars of the Earth, a piece of historical fiction, came as a surprise. Released in 1989, this novel took over three years to write and sees Follett diverge into entirely new areas; a decision his publishers and friends questioned at the time. Over 1000 pages, readers are transported to the 12th century, with the building of a cathedral as the story’s central foundation—inspired by the author’s personal interest in these edifices and those who built them.
While the chronicles of an ecclesiastical building site in the Middle Ages might not sound like prime subject matter for a novel, tales of political and religious disputes, relationships, murder and deception—driven by an array of fascinating characters and evocative descriptions—intertwine to create an enthralling read. Selling over 27 million copies worldwide, the book is part of the Kingsbridge series and comes accompanied by two sequels: World Without End and A Column of Fire. Such is their popularity, that the first two novels were adapted into TV mini-series, and Pillars transformed into a video game.
Afterwards, Follett primarily continued in the vein of historical fiction—a decision he told The Washington Post was driven by a desire to garner further “profound reactions” from readers. The epic Century trilogy follows three generations of five families caught up in modern social and political events, from the First World War to the Cold War—many of which acted as backdrops for his earlier spy novels.
Vivid representations and concise details (Follett hired eight historians to fact check Fall of Giants) are, once again, seamlessly woven among rich character portrayals and story arcs—allowing the reader to become fully invested without feeling like they’re in a history lesson; a factor Follett told BookPage he was keenly aware of.
It’s been almost three years since Follett’s last novel but the wait for the next is nearly over—September marks the release of The Evening And The Morning, a prequel to the Kingsbridge series. Even if nail-biting thrillers or grand historical tales aren’t the kind of thing you usually reach for, don’t be put off: his books offer something for everyone, and your bookshelf will be all the richer with their inclusion.
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