If John Buchan's classic spy novel, The Thirty Nine Steps (1915), represents the earlier end of the spectrum when it comes to the espionage genre, then Stella Rimington's debut novel, At Risk (2004), is a welcome example of where we've ended up. I expect Rimington knows well of what she writes as she is a thirty-year veteran of Britain's Security Service and the first woman to become its director though she is now retired and has published half a dozen novels featuring counterterror agent, Liz Carlyle. I do wonder how much is based on fact and how much is just creative imagination to tell a good story. You'd think ex-spies wouldn't be able to share secrets. Hmm. Interestingly Rimington is chairing the 2011 Man Booker Prize.
Although very different in feel, both novels deliver suspenseful edge of your seat excitement, though I must note that the adrenaline rush feel to the BBC series Spooks/MI5 seems, unsurprisingly, more for dramatization purposes than a reflection of reality. At least that's how it seems after reading about MI5 as written from an insider's standpoint. Liz Carlyle notes early on that her work is more about sifting intelligence, making inquiries and preparing assessments than much cloak and dagger business. Perhaps there will be more opportunity for that in later books? Liz is no Ros Myers, who seems a consummate fictional spy--cool, calculating and without an ounce of fear, which is not to give Liz her due, as she is a nicely three dimensional character with lots of potential. Whereas the Buchan was all about the chase, the Rimington is all about the search, though in the end both were about the risk of those with unkind intentions infiltrating Britain in order to partake in general nastiness.
There are a number of things I liked about At Risk, which will prompt me to pick up the next book in the series. Aside from generally good writing and storytelling, I like the fact that Rimington has chosen as her lead a woman, and a strong, intelligent one at that. It was interesting to see how the different agencies within the government work together, or not as the case sometimes may be, or simply bumble along. There is also the sense that the story is a puzzle and working the problem out and trying to identify the culprit, or in this case a possible terrorist, reminds me a lot of solving a crime in a mystery novel. This is almost more of a cat and mouse game. The first bit of intelligence comes through when a fake driver's license is requested in Germany under the name of a known terrorist. As well there is chatter about the potential of an "invisible" entering Britain. An "invisible" is someone traveling under a British passport with the ability to completely blend in with the rest of the population. Nothing is known, however, about a possible target or when such an event might occur, and the true identities of the perpetrators, as likely there is more than one, are completely unknown.
The one small lead that Liz and her team are offered is the murder of a fisherman in the bathroom of a transport café on the coast in Norfolk. It's perhaps not unusual in and of itself but the use of an armor-piercing rifle as the weapon causes red lights to go off. An obviously ex-military weapon means this is no ordinary crime. There's suspicion that the man was part of a smuggling scheme, though just what he'd been involved in and with whom is unknown as well as the reasons why he was murdered. So what ensues is the careful tracking of movements of the fisherman as well as piecing together what little intelligence there is. I was almost expecting something a bit flashier and more sophisticated, but I certainly don't mind all the analytical stuff either.
The story moves around in place and to a small degree in time giving different perspectives as Rimington slowly reveals just who is involved. Initially nothing seems connected but of course it all comes together in the end. Even the target ends up being a red herring and while the denouement might have been the tiniest bit disappointing for some readers, I thought the last bit was very surprising. I like Liz Carlyle. She has not only smarts sense but dress sense as well (as noted by her careful selection of outfits), though her taste in men is questionable. I expect to learn much more about her in coming instalments. Now that I've moved back and forth in time, I'm curious to see what a little wartime espionage will be like with The Unlikely Spy.