Updated July 07, 1980 12:00 PM

Now that best-selling thriller writer Ken (Eye of the Needle) Follett can afford to live where he wants (in the South of France), wear what he wants (Savile Row suits) and drink what he wants (a nightly bottle of champagne), is there anything in his life worth complaining about? You bet. “What’s the use of being rich and famous,” grumbles Follett good-naturedly, “if you have to spend your birthday in court?”

There he was, at New York’s federal courthouse, fighting to keep his name off a book. The 31-year-old Welshman, who sold three million copies of Needle, and encored successfully last year with Triple, is suing over a manuscript titled The Gentlemen of 16 July, to be published by Arbor House in the fall. The reason he objects to his name being on the cover is simple, Follett claims. “I’m not the author, and I don’t want my fans to get ripped off.” Arbor House President Donald Fine, who has countersued, responds just as confidently: “Ken Follett wrote the book.”

Ironically, Follett and Fine agree on nearly every other detail in the case. In 1976 a gang of thieves tunneled into a bank vault in Nice. After stopping for a meal of paté, wine and pizza, they escaped with an estimated $12 million. Three French journalists, using the single pseudonym René Louis Maurice, wrote a book about the crime. Follett, then a struggling author, was given two translations of the French book, plus newspaper clippings, and asked to produce a salable English version. He did so in 12 days for $1,500. There’s the rub. Follett claims the changes he made amounted only to “editing.” Fine, who owns the American rights to the book, insists that Follett’s work was equal to authorship. He sees nothing illegal or unethical about putting the now famous writer’s name on the cover. “An editor proposes,” says Fine. “Follett disposed.”

The feud may have roots that go deeper than money. Follett published his two previous best-sellers through Arbor House, but switched to New American Library for his forthcoming book The Key to Rebecca, also due this fall. The author believes Fine is being unscrupulous; the publisher denies it. “It’s absolutely the reverse,” says Fine. “New American Library had nothing to do with the development of Ken Follett as a writer, and it’s hurtful and depressing to see him leave, but I hold no personal animosity.” Follett, however, clearly feels differently. “I left Arbor House,” he says, “because I came to dislike intensely the personal style of the man who runs it.”