Follett, Ken (1949—)

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Follett, Ken (1949—)

Writer Ken Follett burst upon the American fiction scene in 1978 with his mystery spy story Eye of the Needle. A taut thriller, it portrayed a central female character rising to heroism and a humanized villain together with a convincing image of World War II lifestyles, sensibilities, and attitudes. Characterized by fast-paced action and an economic, readable style, the book was greeted with enthusiasm by public and reviewers alike. It became an American Literary Guild selection garnering sales of more than ten million copies. This was to be the start of Follett's continued success in America from the 1970s through the 1990s. With Eye of the Needle, he gained the coveted "Edgar" award from the Mystery Writers of America, a prize honoring the father of the American detective story, Edgar Allan Poe. The novel was later adapted for the screen by Stanley Mann, starring Donald Sutherland and Kate Nelligan. With its release in 1981, the film secured Follett's reputation as a top-notch writer in the spy genre.

He followed his first success with four more best-selling thrillers: Triple (1979), The Key to Rebecca (1980), The Man from St. Petersburg (1982), and Lie Down with Lions (1986). American television miniseries of both The Key to Rebecca, starring Cliff Robertson and David Soul, and Lie Down with Lions in 1994, starring Timothy Dalton, enhanced his popular reputation. A further miniseries of On Wings of Eagles (1983), a true story of an Iranian rescue mission, cemented his standing and following.

Pillars of the Earth, which has since achieved a worldwide cult status, was published in 1989. It was a radical departure from Follett's spy stories. The novel about building a cathedral in the Middle Ages was on the New York Times best-seller list for 18 weeks. This book was followed by Night Over Water, A Dangerous Fortune, and A Place Called Freedom, which again were not in the spy genre, but had elements of suspense and intrigue. In 1997, Follett's thriller The Third Twin, a suspense novel about a young woman scientist who stumbles over a genetic engineering experiment, was ranked number two in the world, beaten only by John Grisham's The Partner. Miniseries rights for the book were sold to CBS for $1,400,000, and its broadcast in 1997 was a further indication of Follett's rank in American popular culture. The Hammer of Eden (1998) is a contemporary suspense story with all of the elements of fast pace and intriguing characters established in his earlier efforts.

Follett began his career as a fiction writer while working for the London Evening News. He produced a series of mysteries and thrillers under various pseudonyms until he felt he had learned enough and written well enough to author under his own name. His early works were, in Follett's words, "intentionally very racy, with lots of sex."

Each of his best works grew out of news stories and historical events. Cinematic in conception, they follow a hunter-hunted pattern that leads to exciting chase scenes and games of wit and brinkmanship. His most successful works have dealt with World War II, perhaps because he requires a wide backdrop and world-shaking events to justify the tumultuous passions he instills in his characters. At its best, Follett's prose is lean and driven. His forte lies in setting up a chain of events in chronological sequences. Follett's ideal is a compromise between the serious and the popular, the "plot, story, excitement, sensation and the world outside the mind" that he believes serious writers often ignore merged with the graceful, powerful prose and more complex "character development" that mass-market writers fail to take time for.

Born in Cardiff, Wales, on June 5, 1949, Follett was encouraged to read from a very early age, openly acknowledging his debt to the access to free books he had from the local library, and often saying in lectures that it is axiomatic that a writer is also a reader. He attended University College, London, where he received a BA in philosophy in 1970. While at University, he married his first wife, Mary Elson, and had a son and daughter. His second wife, Barbara Follett, became the Member of Parliament for Stevenage in Hertfordshire. Follett has major interests in music, playing bass guitar in a band called Damn Right I Got the Blues; the theater, especially Shakespeare; and his work as president of the Dyslexia Institute.

—Jim Sinclair

—Joan Gajadhar

Further Reading:

Atkins, John. The British Spy Novel: Studies in Treachery. London, Calder, 1984.

"Ken Follett."

"Ken Follett." April 1999.

McCormack, Donald. Who's Who in Spy Fiction. London, Elm Tree/Hamilton, 1977.