(Reviewed by Eleanor Bukowsky DEC 13, 2008)
In Stella Rimington's Illegal Action, Liz Carlyle of M15, Britain's domestic military intelligence division, is chagrined when her boss, Charles Wetherby, takes a sabbatical to spend more time with his terminally ill wife. She is even more discomfited when he tells her that she has been temporarily transferred to Counter-Espionage, a division that has been overshadowed by Counter-Terrorism ever since the 9/11 attacks. Liz has no personal life to speak of; she spends an occasional weekend with a Dutch investment banker, but it is clear that there are no strings attached. For years, her work has taken the place of the husband and children she never had.
Liz is pleased to be taking a highly competent desk officer, Peggy Kinsolving, along with her on this assignment. They will be working with Brian Ackers, the assistant director of the Russian section, who takes his job very seriously. London has been overrun with a wave of Russian oligarchs--billionaires who buy ostentatious homes, expensive art works, and extravagant automobiles. Along with this influx of the nouveau riche, there has been an increase in the number underworld figures who have flocked to London. This makes for an unstable and potentially dangerous mix.
Someone passes a tip to Geoffrey Fane, a senior controller in M16, that Putin fears the expatriate Russian oligarchs, and has targeted one of them for assassination as an example to the others. In addition, at a meeting of security services from Western Europe, Peggy learns that the Russians may have planted an "illegal," an officer of an intelligence service who assumes a false identity and nationality. If this is true, who is this person and what does he plan to do? The case leads Liz to go undercover. She enters the circle of Nikita Brunovsky, one of the aforementioned oligarchs, who may be the illegal's intended victim.
This is an intricate and involving story in which Rimington makes good use of the knowledge she gleaned during her long career in Britain's security services, culminating in her appointment as the first female Director General of M15. What begins as a relatively tame mission for Liz, who poses as a mature art student in the Brunovsky household, ends in an intense and unexpectedly violent confrontation. This is a world in which nothing can be taken at face value. Liz must look for subtle clues in order to penetrate the truth behind a veil of lies and subterfuge. Although this novel is rich in detail and atmosphere, it is not Rimington's best in terms of character development and suspense. Nevertheless, Illegal Action is a thoughtful look at the changing nature of governmental intelligence in an increasingly volatile and unpredictable political climate.
- Amazon readers rating: from 24 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from Illegal Action at Random House(back to top)
(Reviewed by Eleanor Bukowsky SEP 30, 2006)
Stella Rimington's At Risk is everything a spy novel should be. It's timely, intricate, deeply psychological, action-packed, and suspenseful. The heroine is Liz Carlyle, a member of M15, Britain's domestic military intelligence division. She has risen in the ranks because she is super-competent, extremely sharp, and obsessed with being the best at what she does. Liz has sacrificed the very idea of home and family; she is married to her job.
When Liz gets together with her colleagues in the Joint Counter-Terrorism Group, she learns that Islamic terrorists may be deploying an "invisible" to stage an attack in Great Britain. An "invisible" is an individual who is Western in appearance and has the credentials to blend into his or her surroundings undetected by the authorities. When the mysterious killing of a shadowy figure named Ray Gunter occurs soon after this information is released, alarm bells go off. Gunter was shot with a special type of sophisticated weapon that would unavailable to an ordinary street thug. In addition, Gunter may have been involved in the smuggling of illegal immigrants into England. Could one of these illegals be a terrorist at large? This gives Liz and her team all of the ammunition that they need to start an investigation into a possible act of violence to be carried out in the near future on English soil.
The characters in At Risk are all skillfully depicted. Besides Liz, there is her steady boss, Wetherby, who seems to understand Liz better than she does herself. Much to her chagrin, Liz is suddenly forced to work with Bruno Mackay, a member of M16, Britain's foreign military intelligence division, who knows a great deal about the Pakistani terrorist scene. Mackay is an arrogant and handsome man who is as supercilious as he is charismatic. In addition, Rimington goes to great pains to delve into the minds of the terrorists. Rather than dismissing them as crazed and suicidal ideologues, she shows them to be troubled individuals whose agenda has as much to do with deep emotional pain as it does with political and religious philosophy. This gives At Risk a depth and complexity that run-of-the-mill spy thrillers often lack.
Rimington has a smooth and fast-paced style. The dialogue is funny, biting, hard-hitting, and realistic. Since Rimington worked for thirty-years in Britain's Secret Service and was the first female director general of M15, she knows a great deal about subversion, espionage, and counter-terrorism. Therefore, it is not surprising that At Risk is filled with fascinating details about the workings of England's various security organizations.
- Amazon readers rating: from 32 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from At Risk at Random House
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- At Risk (January 2005)
- Secret Asset (August 2006; June 2007 in US)
- Illegal Action (2007; July 2008 in US)
- Dead Line (2008; June 2010 in US)
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- Wikipedia page on Dame Stella Rimington
- BookPage interview with Stella Rimington
- BBC News article on Stella Rimington: Spying Dame
- A review of Open Secret (2001)
- Telegraph review of At Risk
- Reviewing the Evidence review of Illegal Action
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About the Author:
Dame Stella Rimington was born in 1935 in South London, England. Her family moved from South Norwood to Essex due to the danger of living in London during World War II.
In 1959 Stella Rimington started work as an Assistant Archivist in the Worcestershire County Record Office, which housed the archives of the county and diocese of Worcester. She transferred in 1962 to the India Office Library in London, where she was an Assistant Keeper responsible for the manuscripts relating to the British rule in India.
Rimington left work in 1965 in order to accompany her husband on a posting to the British High Commission in New Delhi, India. While there she worked part-time for the Security Service (MI5) which at that time had an office in New Delhi. On her return to the UK she joined the Security Service as a full time employee.
During her career in MI5, which lasted from 1969-1996, Stella Rimington worked in all the main fields of the Service's responsibilities - counter-subversion, counter-espionage and counter-terrorism - and became successively Director of all three Branches. In 1992, she was appointed director general of MI5, becoming the first female to be given this appointment and also made history as the first Director General whose name was publicly announced on appointment.
In 1996 Dame Stella was appointed non-executive Director at Marks and Spencer and British Gas plc.