|The Key to Rebecca|
|Genre(s)||Thriller, Historical fiction|
New American Library (paperback), Easton Press, Chivers (hardback)
|Media type||Print (Hardback & Paperback)|
|Pages||509 p. (Hardback edition) & 400 p. (Paperback edition)|
|ISBN||ISBN 0792715381 (Hardback edition) & ISBN 0330354272 (Paperback edition)|
The Key to Rebecca is a novel by British author Ken Follett. Published in 1980 by Pan Books (ISBN 0792715381), it was a noted bestseller that achieved popularity both in the United Kingdom and worldwide. The code mentioned in the title is an intended throwback from Follett to Daphne du Maurier's famed suspense novel Rebecca.
While undertaking research for his bestselling novel Eye of the Needle, Follett had discovered the true story of the Nazi spy Johannes Eppler (also known as John W. Eppler or John Eppler) and his involvement in Operation Salaam, a non fiction account of which was published in 1958. This was to form the basis of Follett's The Key to Rebecca, Eppler being the inspiration behind the character Alex Wolff, and he spent a year writing it, more than the time he took to write his previous novels Eye of the Needle and Triple. This true story was also later to form the basis behind Michael Ondaatje's Booker Prize-winning 1992 novel The English Patient and the 1996 Academy Award-winning film of the same name starring Ralph Fiennes.
Many plot elements in the novel are based on actual historical details. The real-life Eppler, like Follett's fictional Alex Wolff, had grown up in Egypt after his mother had remarried to a wealthy Egyptian, and thus had a mixed German and Arab cultural heritage, greatly facilitating his ability to penetrate British-ruled Egypt. Like Follett's spy, Eppler was based at a houseboat on the river Nile, got help from a nationalist-inclined belly dancer in his espionage work, and used a system of codes based on Daphne du Maurier's book Rebecca – which provided the title of Follett's book. And Eppler did request assistance from the Cairo-based Free Officers Movement, who were at the time nominally pro-Axis in the belief that they would 'liberate' Egypt from the British, and specifically from the young Anwar Sadat.
Sadat plays an important role in the book, and the scene of his arrest by the British is largely derived from Sadat's own autobiography – though the British officer who actually arrested him was not Follett's protagonist, Major William Vandam – a completely fictional character.
However, Wolff is a far more formidable character than the actual Eppler, who "deliberately sabotaged his own radio, because he wanted to enjoy himself and live with a Jewish prostitute". In contrast, Follett's Wolff - though having a sensual and pleasure-loving side - is completely dedicated to his mission, driven by a curious mixture of German nationalism, Egyptian nationalism and an overwhelming personal ambition. Like the German spy Faber in Follett's earlier Eye of the Needle, he is supremely intelligent, competent and resourceful, and utterly ruthless - ever ready to kill anyone perceived as threatening him, and preferring to do it silently with a knife. However, towards the end of the book Wolff displays an increasing sadistic streak absent from Follett's earlier spy.
Among other things, Wolff is credited with having crossed the Sahara into Egypt by himself on camel back, rather than being ferried there as was the actual Eppler. To enable Wolff to carry out such an epic feat, Follett provides him with a Bedouin background. Thus Wolff is thoroughly conversant with three distinct cultures; Nazi Germany, the Egyptian urban elites and the desert-dwelling tribes - the last two as distant from each other as they are from the first.
Another major departure is to make Wolff's espionage of far greater strategic significance than Eppler's ever was, making the very outcome of the war – or at least of the North African campaign – hinge on it, and fictionally crediting some of Rommel's main battle victories to information provided by Wolff, having gained access to secret battle plans carried by a Secret Intelligence Service officer.
The Key to Rebecca immediately attained bestseller status, becoming a main selection of the Book of the Month Club, garnering an initial printing of 100,000 copes within days and having been serialized in several magazines, even before any reviews had been published. Positive reviews of the novel cited its depth in historical detail, and accurate depictions of Cairo and the Egyptian desert in World War II. Follett noted that it was due to the success of The Key to Rebecca that he had believed he had truly been successful.
In 1985, The Key to Rebecca was adapted into a film, directed by David Hemmings and starring David Soul as Alex Wolff and Cliff Robertson as Maj. William Vandam. It was filmed in Tunisia and was shot as a two-part, four-hour TV movie; syndicated as part of the Operation Prime Time package, the first part aired in New York City on WPIX on April 29, 1985, with the second part airing on May 9, 1985. (Dates varied by station.)  Produced by Taft Entertainment in association with Castle Comb Productions, it was later shown in the United Kingdom, Scandinavia and several other countries in which the novel had been popular.