Ken Follett (born June 5, 1949) is a British author of thrillers and historical novels. He has sold a total of 100 million copies and has authored numerous bestselling works, such as The Key to Rebecca, Lie Down with Lions, A Dangerous Fortune, The Man from St. Petersburg and Eye of the Needle.
Follett is widely perceived as a talented author of historical/thriller fiction, with a long series of international best-sellers to his name. Leaving aside a series of competent but undistinguished paperback originals written under various pseudonyms, of which The Modigliani Scandal and Paper Money are perhaps the best known, Follett’s literary career has gone through four distinct phases.
The first, and most distinguished, phase comprises Eye of the Needle and the five books (four fiction and one non-fiction) that followed it. All are variations of the classic espionage thriller, pitting one or two daring, resourceful agents against a numerous and well-equipped enemy. The settings are both geographically and chronologically diverse, ranging from World War I Europe in The Man from St. Petersburg to (then) present-day Israel, Iran and Afghanistan in Triple, On Wings of Eagles and Lie Down with Lions. Like the early works of Frederick Forsyth, another journalist-turned-novelist, Follett’s early thrillers devote much attention to how things are done. The Key To Rebecca, for example, hinges on the workings of a particular type of secret code, the hero of Triple is a master of disguise, and clandestine radio transmitters play a major role in Eye of the Needle. All six books—including On Wings of Eagles, the non-fictional story of the successful attempt to rescue two American employees of Ross Perot’s company EDS from Iran after the 1979 Revolution—follow the basic conventions of the thriller genre. All six, however, use those conventions in unconventional ways: making the protagonist of Eye of the Needle a German agent, for example.
The second phase of Follett’s career was a conscious departure from the first: a series of four historical novels written in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The Pillars of the Earth, the first of the four, set the pattern for the three that followed. Unlike Follett’s earlier thrillers, it featured a large cast, multiple plotlines, occasional outbursts of violence, and extensive use of historical background. Pillars, set mostly in medieval England, followed the building of a cathedral. Night Over Water was a Grand Hotel-style tale that took place aboard a transatlantic seaplane flying from Southampton to New York on the eve of World War II. A Dangerous Fortune revolved around family and business intrigue in a large family of financiers in Victorian-era London, and A Place Called Freedom took place in Britain’s North American colonies around the time of the American Revolution.
Follett changed literary gears a third time in the late 1990s, with a pair of books set firmly in the present and using high technology as a plot device. The Hammer of Eden focused on the potential use of earthquakes as a terrorist weapon, and The Third Twin on the darker aspects of biotechnology. The two novels—seemingly an attempt to mine the same fictional vein as Michael Crichton—were comparatively unsuccessful. Reviewers, as well as many readers, found the characters shallow and the effort required to suspend disbelief too great.
Follett returned to conventional low-tech thrillers in Code to Zero, an espionage story pitting Soviet and American agents on the eve of America’s first satellite launch. The World War II adventures Jackdaws and Hornet Flight put Follett firmly back where he began: writing about daring agents operating undercover behind enemy lines, charged with a mission that could change the course of the war. Some critics and readers hailed them as a welcome and long-overdue return by Follett to the kind of story he writes best. Others regarded them as old wine in new bottles: rehashings of themes and situations he had treated more interestingly in his earlier work.
Barring another radical shift in his literary output, Follett’s reputation is likely to rest on his early thrillers (especially Eye of the Needle and The Key to Rebecca) and on The Pillars of the Earth, which he himself is said to regard as his finest work.
His most recent novel is World Without End, a sequel to The Pillars of the Earth, released in October 2007. He was inspired to write this novel in the cathedral of the Spanish town of Vitoria-Gasteiz, which is why Vitoria has honored him with a sculpture in his likeness.
He received an Honorary LLD (Doctor of Laws) from Exeter University on 11 July 2008.