Book Review: The Key To Rebecca (Follett, 1980)

Full Title: The Key To Rebecca
Author: Ken Follett
Year: 1980
Publisher: several (mine was Penguin Books)
ISBN 978-0-451-20779-1
View it on Amazon
View it on Google Books

First, it should be clear that I didn’t buy/read this book because I have a daughter named Rebecca. I first heard of this book a few years before meeting my wife and therefore several years before having children. It was in a news writing workshop sponsored by the Oklahoma Press Association, and I don’t remember the speaker’s name, but he used the first line of Follett’s novel as an example of a great lead paragraph:

“The last camel collapsed at noon.”

I, along with a room full of other aspiring small-town journalists, were learning to write more concisely and precisely; this first line was held up as an amazing use of six words. “Camel” tells you you’re in the desert. “Last” lets you know there had been multiple camels that didn’t make it. “Collapsed” is powerful because camels are legendary for going long periods without water breaks; the fact that the camels didn’t make it instructs the reader that it’s been a long journey without food and water. “Noon” tells you the sun is straight up and you’re nearing the hottest part of the day.

In other words, these six words set an entire scene. The speaker at our workshop was of the opinion that it was the best opening line ever, at least regarding how much meaning they carry, which is what you’re supposed to do with the opening line of a story in a newspaper: short yet informative. I attended nearly a dozen such workshops, and this is one of two about which I remember something specific. I carried those six words in my head for years, even after I’d forgotten the title of the book and the author’s name.

Eventually, after I got married and had kids, I entered those six words in Google and was surprised that the book’s name included Rebecca, since I’d already named my daughter by then (and it was my wife who suggested the name).

(And yes, I realize I kind of shot the point in the foot by going on so long about this, but this isn’t a newspaper with limited inches.)

◊ Summary

The Key To Rebecca is a spy novel, or action-adventure thriller, set in World War II and based loosely on real-life events. As noted in Wikipedia, Follett was researching a different novel and came across the story of a real spy who was supposed to use the 1938 novel Rebecca, along with a specific key, to send coded messages to Rommel during his African campaign. Follett took the core of the idea, changed (most of) the names and events and came up with an enjoyable story and (mostly) believable characters.

The story follows two major characters: the ruthless and skilled spy Alex Wolff, and the single-father British Major William Vandham, as Wolff infiltrates Egypt and attempts to get classified information from Cairo-stationed British officers and send it to Rommel, while Vandham investigates the case against the advice of his superiors.

◊ What I Liked Least About It

Despite being written in 1980, it actually feels like it was written much closer to the war, perhaps the ’50s, when readers would have been much more familiar with the various troop movements and locations involved. Follett doesn’t spend a large amount of space describing these things, or the various real people that are in the historical novel. As a person born at the end of the Vietnam War — and whose WW2 education consisted of various European campaigns, Pearl Harbor, and the atom bomb — I felt rather lost when those topics came up without much explanation.

This was a minor detail though.

◊ What I Liked Most About It

The writing is crisp throughout. Follett rarely wanders in his prose and it feels tightly edited to only include what the reader needs to get the story.

Despite being born in Wales and educated by British-speaking people, Follett intentionally avoids words and phrases that might be confusing to an American-speaking audience — at least in this book; I can’t speak for his other works. (It gets frustrating to read BBC articles online, when they mention MPs, which means “military police officers” in American, but “members of Parliament” in British, and many other examples, or to listen to British reporters talk of places called “Chiner”, “Afriker”, and “Ameriker”, something that disappears in print.)

The plot is well set up and seems plausible, as do the various escapes, fights and car chases.

◊ Overall Impression

I enjoyed the book and will likely read it again in a few years — for me, I have this cool ability reread a book after four or five years and not remember most of the first reading.

  1. Shari says:

    “I have this cool ability reread a book after four or five years and not remember most of the first reading.”
    I never thought of having a short memory as being a super power, but why not? I can still memorize things pretty easily, but then I dump the info afterwards and then have no idea on the subject.

    • Wil C. Fry says:

      At least it means that buying a book is a decent investment for me, whereas it’s not for Marline — she can read a book in a few hours and remember everything in it — for many years. It’s the main reason I pushed for us to get library cards. :-)

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