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Gerritsen On Follett's Repellent, Fascinating 'Needle'

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.


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.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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