At Risk, by Stella Rimington
Another page on this author, here
An insider job
Sam Leith reviews At Risk by Stella Rimington
I can't say I approached Stella Rimington's debut as a thriller writer with much optimism. In fact, I approached it in the same spirit I'd expect to view the appointment of Anita Brookner as head of British Intelligence. Even pace the success of John le Carré, being a spook is surely no more likely to fit you out for writing novels - except that the job seems to require observational skills and a certain negative capability - than writing novels fits you out to fight al-Qa'eda.
What a pleasant surprise to be proved wrong. I don't know how good she was as a spy, but Stella Rimington turns out to be a more than competent thriller writer - rising, in fits and starts, to pretty damn good. At Risk is breezily told, seldom pompous, and the plot, though every bit as hokey as you'd expect, winds its threads together very entertainingly.
Rimington's heroine is Liz Carlyle, an MI5 agent with the traditional thriller-heroine mix of dysfunctional personal life and steely ambition. The story kicks off with word on the intelligence grapevine that an Islamic fundamentalist group is planning a spectacular in the UK. A drug-runner seems to have diversified into people-trafficking. News arrives of an inexplicable murder in a Norfolk lay-by, committed with armour-piercing ammunition. And there starts to be the alarming suggestion that "the opposition" is using an "invisible" - a white British national, all but undetectable to the intelligence agencies.
Along the way, Liz acquires a somewhat off-the-peg male sparring partner: a flash, flirtatious old Harrovian Arabist from MI6. Inter-service rivalry, the sex war and the dissimulations of two colleagues reluctant to tip their hands to how much they really know are the stuff of their relationship.
Rimington does more than push the plot along. She's interesting on the psychology of her female "invisible" - a middle-class problem kid who craves the self-abnegation of submission to radical Islam - and there's the odd real felicity of style. Eating a supper of a bony and overcooked white fish, for example, is "like picking cotton wool out of a hairbrush", and a glancing mention of the way the "torn air" smells in an underground firing range stays just the right side of showing off.
Her story has enough in it, too, of the technical workings of the intelligence services to be intriguing, without ever clotting the plot or getting nerdy. Whether these details are true, or make-believe, doesn't matter much. I imagine her account of how to make C4 plastic explosive in your kitchen omits a couple of vital steps - though it may yet provoke some ruined saucepans and a run on Silly Putty by jihad-minded teenagers.
She also indulges herself in the odd joke. Liz is asked, at one point, whether "despite heavy-handed official disapproval" she's writing her memoirs - as the author, of course, did. There are digs at David Shayler, and we hear from a rather pious, though unnamed, Prime Minister, who sends word that an injured Liz is "in his prayers". "That must be what pulled me through," she replies tartly.
There is room for improvement - some loose ends, a slightly rushed ending, and the odd duff bit of dialogue - but there's no reason to believe it won't take place. I'd certainly take any sequel she produces to the beach. If she goes on doing this, Dame Stella could pick up a following, as well as a tail.
Dame Stella Rimington, director general of MI5 until 1996, recently helped to create a nerve-shredding drama packed with edge-of-the-seat cliffhangers.
Larger-than-life characters battle for the soul of one of Britain's most august institutions as ferocious predators lurk in the shadows, and a twist-packed plot lurches from one tense stand-off to another.
But that's enough about the struggle for control of Marks & Spencer, where Dame Stella has been a king-making (and king-breaking) non-executive director since 1997. Yesterday, she also published a thriller about MI5, At Risk (Hutchinson, £10.99). Here, the results feel more off-the-peg than made-to-measure.
The book, trumpeted for its behind-the-scenes view of intelligence operations by a "uniquely qualified" insider, offers a sturdy but conventional hunt-the-terrorist plot. In paperback-suspense terms, it really does read like the counterpart of one of those robust, risk-free, M&S outfits its agent heroine, mid-thirties Liz Carlyle, observes on the backs of her drab fellow-spooks at their Millbank HQ. Just don't expect any kind of designer creation.
Our ostensible villain - surprise, surprise - is an Islamist terrorist from an Afghan family. He sneaks into East Anglia, with undisclosed plans for a strike on a high-profile target.
Soon, he links up with a mixed-up, middle-class Englishwoman who has gone over to the side of the jihadi militants. This faith-seeking renegade, Jean D'Aubigny, is among Rimington's many updates of cold war spy-story conventions for the age of al-Qa'ida.
Liz, our intuitive sleuth, is aided in her chase-against-time across the wintry fields of Norfolk by respectful coppers, but thwarted by a vile, public-school smoothie from MI6. In fact, we end up loathing the smarmy, deceitful Bruno Mackay far more than the holy warrior, Faraj Mansoor, who turns out to have credible and "entirely personal" motives.
So much for claims that spiteful recrimination between Britain's domestic and overseas intelligence networks is a thing of the past.
Neither do our American friends come out smelling particularly sweet.
The biggest disappointment comes from the near-absence of genuine inside information. Of course, At Risk - scrutinised by Rimington's successors - would never have seen the light of day otherwise.
Apart from smatterings of trivia about the Thames House citadel of MI5, there's little that a sedulous reading of non-fiction exposés and rival thriller-writers would not yield.
You will find the "recipe" for C4 plastic explosive on pages 241-243, although I trust that it contains plenty of deliberate mistakes.
In short, At Risk delivers an entertaining ride that owes more to the tried-and-tested machinery of its genre than to any de-classified revelations.
And the plot-device of a limited hit by a pair of lone jihadis - more assassination than atrocity - feels quaint in the wake of the Madrid train massacres.
What we need from Stella Rimington is the novel she can never write: a morally ambiguous, Le Carré-style drama rooted in the murky domestic intrigues of the M15 she served so well.
This agency spent our money and its time infiltrating the peace, anti-apartheid and trade union movements, kept tabs on generations of young radicals such as Jack Straw and Peter Hain, and got into bed with deeply unsavoury elements in Northern Ireland.
But her writing's none too clever. Philip Hensher compiles a briefing on Stella Rimington's At Risk
Sunday July 18, 2004
by Stella Rimington
Hutchinson £12.99, pp400
Considering how incredibly tedious her memoirs were, Stella Rimington's novel is not bad at all. Cynics may suggest that this abrupt improvement is due to the 'help with the research and the writing' which she credits to Luke Jennings. I would suggest that we are more likely to find out the details of MI5's well-known assassination of Roland Barthes than how much Mr Jennings has done, so let us be charitable and call it Ms Rimington's work. On that basis, she may be quite a reasonable novelist, but, goodness, what a rubbish spy she must have been.
The revelation of her vagueness about the real world is a surprising one, but difficult to shake off. I wonder what long hours of MI5's time were wasted by Rimington's apparent belief that you can hire a car from Avis just by handing over a cash deposit, or as she puts it in her Martian way, 'did not to use a credit card'. Considering that MI5 is now supposedly terribly interested in Muslim fundamentalists, its former boss has very little idea about them; a devout woman Muslim here thinks nothing of getting her knockers out in front of a Muslim man to whom she isn't married, and the whole process of converting to Islam - 'she had done the necessary study' - is unrecognisably laborious. She makes it sound like an Anglican confirmation.
On the other hand, to give her her due, she is jolly good on magic mushrooms and the art of making bombs out of silly putty, and this is quite a reasonable book of a fairly standard variety. Her heroine, Liz, is a spy in MI5. She has conflicts between her private life and her professional probity. She has an outrageous and infuriating counterpart in MI6 who flirts and bickers with her over lavish lunches where national security is discussed with a reckless disregard for the possibility of eavesdroppers at neighbouring tables.
Liz has a slightly creepy boss called Charles - 'pressed suit and polished Oxfords' - who is always descending from the skies to save her butt and patting her hand in hospital wards. She also - you will have seen this one coming - shocks and outrages her staider colleagues by wearing pointed plum-coloured shoes and a scarlet velvet scarf. In short, she is like every other lady spy/female MP/City babe in novels of this sort, and it is amusing to read that Rimington, rather than thinking her up in 10 seconds flat, has 'dreamed for years of writing a thriller and have had the main character, Liz, in my mind all that time. She has changed and developed as the years have gone by'. Maybe her scarf used to be orange or something.
Anyway, the plot is about Liz bravely foiling a plot by two Muslim fanatics, aided by a pompous Norfolk squire who - of course - likes being tied up and whipped by London prostitutes, and a sinister odd-job man. Very, very sinister. '"He rather gives me the creeps." "In what way?" "He's just... sinister." "Yobbish?" "No, worse than that. He's sinister, like I said."'
The plot is to blow up the suburban house of some military district commander in Norfolk, at which point I rather gave up. I mean, you know, this is a novel; you can blow up anything you like - the Houses of Parliament, Ann Widdecombe, Wales. I honestly don't much care whether a fictitious military administrator's fictitious semi-detached house goes up in smoke or not.
The strand of the novel which is rather enjoyable, on the other hand, is the scenes in MI5 itself. One always understood that most spies, in reality, spend most of their days sending each other tetchy notes about the overdue submission of form 3179/B in triplicate and bitching about their colleagues. Rimington does this sort of thing rather well. Her office conversations can be very amusing.
'"Don't tell me MI6 have stared recruiting smug ex-public schoolboys. That I can't believe." He stared at me. "With or without shame?" "Without." "You'll have to kill him. Kick him in the ankle with your pointy shoes, Rosa Klebb-style.'"
I can quite believe, too, that an MI5 official with nothing much to do would have 50 David Shayler masks made for the office Christmas party. That is believable, and interesting. I wonder whether Rimington ever really came across anyone like her terrorists, with their useful but perhaps reckless habit of leaving shopping-lists of bomb-making equipment around in public places. She clearly does know what bored paper-shufflers in Thames House are like, however, and that might have made an interesting novel on its own. The yawns start, as ever, with the race-against-time stuff.
The spymaster's tale
Jessica Mann reviews At Risk by Stella Rimington
The news that Stella Rimington, the former Director General of MI5, was writing a thriller about the secret services provoked hostile comments: the book, it was suggested, would probably be unreadable and certainly a breach of security.
In fact, At Risk is an interesting story competently told, and the tricks and tradecraft that Rimington describes are too similar to those employed by other thriller writers to be giving much away. Even the heroine conforms to crime fiction's current fashion for clever, chippy action-girls with dysfunctional private lives. Rimington's admission that 34-year-old Liz Carlyle, is "obviously in large part autobiographical" is illuminating but also rather worrying since most of her decisions seem to be based on "gut instinct".
This is a race-against-time, hunt-the-terrorist story. The threat is from an "invisible" - CIA-speak for an enemy who can move round the country without attracting notice. Liz leaps at the chance to get out of the office and into the field - in this case, East Anglian - quelling members of the public with a flash of credentials and pulling rank over patronising men from MI6.
Alternate chapters follow the "invisible", an Afghan with a "pale, incurious, assassin's gaze" and his sidekick, an English girl convert to fundamentalist Islam. Both, unusually, are shown as sympathetic characters, even though they are so quick on the draw that Norfolk is soon littered with bodies.
Feminine intuition works for both pursuer and pursued. It tells the Muslim girl that her pursuer is female; but it also enables Liz Carlyle to "get inside" the Afghan man's head. The story hurtles enjoyably along to its conclusive shootout. However it is followed by a final act that is certainly criminal, should be unthinkable and for which Stella Rimington would formerly have been accountable. It is shocking that she sees this state-sanctioned atrocity as plausible, even in fiction.
Stella Rimington Hutchinson, 393pp, £12.99
Reviewed by Douglas Hurd
He is a tough young Tajik, smuggled into Britain with a boatload of illegal
immigrants. She is the English girl detailed to receive him in a desolate
Norfolk bungalow. Together, they are to carry out a carefully planned attack on
behalf of a Muslim terrorist organisation. Things go awry when he shoots dead an
Englishman who tries to steal his haversack as he emerges from the boat. From
then the story is a race between this strange couple, as they travel towards
their objective, and the assembled British forces as they mobilise to track and
This novel would be successful even if its author wasn't Stella Rimington, lately head of MI5. She says she has drawn in part on her own experience, and we remember the minor commotion that greeted the publication of her memoirs. But I doubt if this time heads will be shaken or memos exchanged in Whitehall. I found it easy to forget Rimington's background in simple enjoyment of her tale.
Despite the up-to-date political background, this is old-fashioned stuff and none the worse for that. Eighty years ago, it would have been praised as "a rattling good yarn". Whether or not consciously chosen, the model is John Buchan. There are no narrative tricks, just a straightforward build-up of tension. The style is honest and sturdy, though Buchan would not have used "exit" as a transitive verb. Like him, Rimington uses vivid description of the countryside and the weather to heighten tension and strengthen belief. Like him, she enjoys describing meetings of the great and the good. There are touches of mischief; her main character from MI6, the partner and rival to her own service, is a brilliant, suntanned and upper-class cad. There are hints of parody, as in the portrait of a Norfolk squire trundling from a haircut at Trumper's to shirts at New & Lingwood, cigars at Davidoff, lunch at Brooks's and a lewd assignment in Shepherd Market. Though a Tory peer, I can score only two out of five on this card.
Also Buchanesque is the assured con-fidence of the British action against the would-be terrorists, which gathers strength after they commit two more murders of civilians who hamper their plan. The local police blunder about, but the people who count, namely the intelligence services and the SAS, are icy and strong. The outcome is never in doubt. The girl terrorist spells it out for her accomplice:
"These are the British we're dealing with, and they are a vengeful people. They are quite happy to see their elderly starve to death on council estates or die of neglect in filthy hospital corridors, but harm the least of them . . . and they will pursue you to the ends of the earth. They will never, ever give up."
The reader's sympathies turn against the two terrorists once they commit brutal murders. But later, as the net closes, they attract the sympathy that always goes to the hunted. This increases with the description of the killing of the man's family by Americans in Afghanistan who mistook a wedding party for a gathering of terrorists. We learn, too, how the woman's experiences drove her to Islamist fundamentalism. Or rather we think we learn, for there is a final twist to keep us on our toes.
I was not quite persuaded that the terrorists' rather prosaic target was worth the huge effort mounted against it, but to explain that doubt would give away the ending - something that can be justified only with a bad book. This one is first class, and will give pleasure to many.
Douglas Hurd's memoirs are published by Little, Brown. He has started work on a life of Sir Robert Peel