Memorial Day marks the traditional start of summer, and with it beach reading. An unexpected by-product of summer’s lower intellectual standards is that one’s literary risk-reward ratio expands exponentially, the way pole vaulting records were shattered by quantum leaps when athletes abandoned aluminum for fiberglass. Pick a mildewed paperback off a bookshelf in a vacation house–one that you’d be ashamed to check out of your local library for fear it would be cited in a future Senate confirmation hearing–and you can be transported to realms of schlock that previously lay beyond your poor powers of comprehension.
Thus it is with Ken Follett’s “Eye of the Needle.” Originally published as “Storm Island,” “Eye of the Needle” is a counterfactual tale, a story that asks the question “what if” about a historical event, imagining what might have happened if the proximate link in the chain leading up to it were altered. Here’s how Follett himself describes the thesis on which he built the plot:
It is 1944 and weeks before D-Day. The Allies are disguising their invasion plans with a phoney (sic) armada of ships and planes. Their plan would be scuppered if an enemy agent found out…
and then, Hitler’s prize agent, “The Needle,” does just that. Hunted by MI5, he leads a murderous trail across Britain to a waiting U-Boat. But he hasn’t planned for a storm-battered island, and the remarkable young woman who lives there.
It’s enough to set you off and running, like a starter’s pistol at the beginning of a footrace. But the important thing to note is that it’s based largely on fact; the Allies did indeed disguise the D-Day invasion by sending legions of British vacationers to Normandy Beach, outfitting their children with inflatable squeaky frog inner-tubes. Surely, thought the Nazis, the Allies won’t attack here, now that the mothers have unwrapped the tinned meat sandwiches and the fathers have lost their car keys.
Follett’s masterwork is marbled with a number of other historically-correct elements that lend it an air of verisimilitude, and which leave the reader, as he finally puts the book down late at night, shaking his head at what might have been. “My God,” you say to yourself, “but for a simple twist of fate, the women of America would have been in hopeless thrall to legions of Nazi cunnilinguists.”
It’s right there on page 226, the infamous Gestapo muff-diving scene, as famous in its genre of mindless beach-reading as Gatsby at the end of the dock, the madeleines in A La Recherche du Temps Perdu, Hawthorne’s scarlet letter. Again, I quote at length, or as much length as I am permitted by this site’s Terms of Service and my ability to control my involuntary aesthetic gag reflex:
He slipped down the bed, between her thighs. (. . .) Surely he doesn’t want to kiss me there. He did. And he did more than kiss.
Suffice it to say that Follett’s “remarkable young woman” is ”paralyzed by shock” at the hitherto-unknown worlds of pleasure that her German tonguemeister introduces her to.
Which raises the question: Suppose the Nazis had won World War II. Yes, the bright light of democracy would have been snuffed out, millions of “undesirables”–-Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, Masons (!) and Poles–would have been consigned to certain death in concentration camps, and single men across America would have been subject to humiliation in scenes such as this:
SINGLE MAN: Hi–can I buy you a drink?
SINGLE WOMAN: Are you a member in good standing of the National Socialist German Workers Party, better known as the Nazis?
SINGLE MAN: Well, uh, no, but . . .
SINGLE WOMAN: (To “wingwoman” friend) Look–isn’t that Josef Goebbels, Jr. over there?
The possibility is one with more than a passing interest to me, since I live on the East Coast, and German U-boats were believed to have patrolled the waters of the Atlantic until V-E Day. Say the Nazis had won World War II in 1945; I was born in 1951, and moved to Massachusetts two decades later. Had the Allies gone down to defeat, by the time I got here Nazi subjugation of American women would have been complete. The upshot for me? No dates, no mate, no heirs to carry on my name or DNA.
One imagines the final steps to Nazi dominance with horror, aboard a German submarine, V or C class, as it patrols the beaches between Cape Cod and the North Shore of Boston:
Aboard the Marlene Dietrich:
VICE ADMIRAL HEINRICH VON TIECHLER: What’s shakin’?
FIRST MATE: The Yankee women seem to have sacrificed greatly to the Allies’ cause. There is not a healthy set of gams to be seen on the beach!
VICE ADMIRAL: We are north of Boston, where the women lose their muscle tone playing bridge, making stupid jokes about how they like to go into Boston to get “scrod.” Let us turn to the south.
(. . .)
FIRST MATE: We are off Revere Beach.
VICE ADMIRAL: Keep going–Mussolini has dibs on the Italians.
(. . .)
FIRST MATE: We approach Cape Cod.
VICE ADMIRAL: Check the Infidelity Meter.
FIRST MATE: Conditions are favorable–I’m showing high concentrations of discarded limes with traces of gin in the water.
VICE ADMIRAL: Dive, man, dive!