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My Favorite Novelist Today: Ken Follett

As I start on this assignment, I imagine and hope it should not be too hard to write. I am familiar with most of this author’s work and have strong opinions regarding its quality. No, the difficulty came in selecting a subject to be my favorite novelist. I faced a similar situation, a while ago, when I accepted an assignment to write about my favorite musician. Not only is the competition quite keen in both fields, I may, at different times be more inclined to read or listen to any number of people, depending on my mood. All that said, I am selecting Ken Follett. As our fictional friend Adrian Monk would say, “He’s the guy.”

As I mentioned in another earlier article, I had scarcely been aware of Ken Follett and hardly been impressed for quite some time after he began his career. My only sort of exposure to him was the film, Eye of the Needle, based on his 1978 novel of that name. I found the film to be overrated and a disappointment. I eventually got around to reading the book it was based on and remained unimpressed.

The thing that motivated me to read Eye of the Needle, and just about everything else Follett had written came about just after Christmas of 2007. A very good friend of mine, who usually sends me an excellent book, gave me a copy of The Pillars of the Earth for Christmas. Judging a book by its cover, a thing you are not supposed to do, but which we all do to a very great extent, I would never have picked this up in a bookstore or even a library. What do I care about architecture? I’m the kid who flunked mechanical drawing.

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Still, it would have been ungracious not to at least attempt to read my friend’s present, if for no reason than I could mumble some vaguely-credible answer when she asked me how I liked it. Liked it? It was only the best novel I had ever read in my life. Yeah, I guess I could say I liked it.

The brilliance of that novel inspired me to raid my local library and, Heaven forbid, even go to my local bookstore and shell out some coin of the realm to read everything else Mr. Follett had written that I could find. Fortunately, the free library stuff was, by and large, his earlier mediocre stuff. See, here is the deal: Ken Follett did not suddenly put pen to paper and achieve instant greatness. His journey to that status was a long and tedious one, and, by tedious, I mean his earlier stuff, largely World War II spy stories.

From his start in the mid-1970s, up to the mid-1980s, Follett was OK enough to get his stuff published, which is no small accomplishment, but far from brilliant. In 1989, he wrote The Pillars of the Earth and put himself in a whole new class of novelists.

He proved he was no one-hit wonder by writing a series of novels to follow, which, if they were not quite as brilliant as Pillars, were excellent, nonetheless and among the best stuff being published in the English language.

In addition to his breakthrough novel, I would highly recommend World Without End (the geographic sequel to The Pillars of the Earth, published in 2007), A Dangerous Fortune (1993), A Place Called Freedom (1995), Jackdaws (his only really good WWII thriller, in 2001) and Fall of Giants (2010). By the time you finish all of those, perhaps the as-yet untitled sequel to Fall of Giants should be available.

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Speaking of availability, there is already a film version extant of The Pillars of the Earth, in the form of a miniseries, which I saw and gave a mixed review. I mention that because the novel’s sequel, World Without End will soon start filming, so we may look forward to a cinematic version of that novel as well.

Ken Follett is a Welshman, having been born in Cardiff in 1949. The land of his birth has played a part in a number of his novels, including Pillars, and a very important one in his most recent book, Fall of Giants, as the birthplace of some of the novel’s most important characters.

He started out as a journalist, then went into the publishing business, very far from the executive level. In fact, his first advance on his first novel was the cost of repairing his car. Deserved or otherwise, the financial success of Eye of the Needle enabled him to get publishers to read his manuscripts, which, for a fledgling writer, is a huge step. From there, it was simply a matter of honing his craft.

If you have the attention-span to read a lengthy novel (Some of Follett’s are in the 1,000 page range.), and, since you are reading this article, I am guessing that you do, then you will be doing yourself a considerable favor by reading all the recent ones I mentioned above. “Mr. Tom” and the “Narrator” of Odd Man Out may try to trip you up from time to time, but this is the straight-up truth. I am sure your local library carries most, if not all of these novels, so there you are.

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The aforementioned novels themselves