Ken Follett is the rare spy novelist whose female characters are as strong as his males. From the Englishwoman who unwittingly falls for a Nazi assassin in 1978’s ”Eye of the Needle” to the protagonist’s scientist wife in last year’s Cold War thriller ”Code to Zero,” Follett’s women have been downright formidable. In Jackdaws, Follett once again puts his cross-gender gift to good use by telling the story of an all-female World War II espionage team.
The title is the code name of a small squad organized by British major Felicity Clairet (nicknamed Flick) to destroy a Gestapo communications center in France on the eve of D-Day. The 28-year-old Flick has been recruited, à la Jennifer Garner in ”Alias,” by a secret organization responsible for sabotage behind enemy lines. She assembles a distaff Dirty Half-Dozen, an oddball band of sisters who pose as cleaning ladies to infiltrate the former chateau.
Her cobbled-together unit of would-be commandos includes Ruby Romain, a prisoner so ruthless she once slit the throat of a fellow inmate over a bar of soap; Geraldine ”Jelly” Knight, an aging barfly and explosives expert; the Honourable Diana Colefield, a lesbian noblewoman and crack shot; and Greta/Gerhard, a drag diva by night/telephone engineer by day.
But the Jackdaws’ most compelling member is Flick herself. As capable of cold-blooded murder as she is of hot-blooded passion, she’s code-named Leopardess because ”she moved around the streets of occupied France with the silent footsteps of a dangerous cat.” (If only Follett’s often-clunky prose were as light on its toes.) Should ”Jackdaws” ever become a movie, a good choice for the role might be Angelina Jolie, who proved she could handle mayhem — and a British accent — in ”Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.”
Unhappily married to Michel, an unfaithful French resistance leader, Flick eventually embarks on an affair with Paul Chancellor, the American intelligence officer in charge of the mission. In one of Follett’s typically vivid character touches, Paul lost most of his left ear during a shoot-out with the Gestapo in Marseille, although, Flick notes, ”there was a certain charm to his face.”
It’s hard not to get caught up in the ”Casablanca”-esque Flick/ Michel/Paul triangle, even though Follett has a tin ear when it comes to romantic dialogue; he seems to have lifted his pillow talk from old porn scripts. (Not to mention the fact that he repeatedly describes Flick’s breasts as ”neat.”)
No such antiseptic adjectives are used to depict the book’s central villain, Maj. Dieter Franck, a Third Reich counterintelligence specialist with a taste for morphine. He makes it his personal goal to capture Flick and subject her to one of his brutal interrogations. ”Welcome to Hell,” he greets a captive upon entering his torture chamber, the site of several powerfully graphic sequences. ”Jackdaws”’ narrative cuts between scenes of Flick and Dieter, and Follett uses the shifting focus to set the 451-page novel’s pace, building up tension before the foes’ inevitable showdown.
If you’re not careful, you can get as lost in the tangled syntax of his sentences as he does (”She was alert, her heart pounding, her muscles tensed for action, but in her brain the blood flowed like ice water”). Yet even his most clichéd sentences can be deliciously melodramatic. ”Beautiful women were like the gorgeous French Impressionist paintings he collected,” he writes of Dieter. ”Having one did not stop you wanting another.”
Follett’s characters have strength but not depth. They’re literally action figures. Still, you won’t have any trouble telling the good guys and gals from the bad ones, and there’s something deeply satisfying about that. ”Jackdaws” aims to please as a suspense thriller (will Flick blow up the château?) and as a soap opera (will Flick blow off her new beau?). On both counts, Follett delivers plenty of bang for your buck.