At Risk by Stella Rimington

AT RISK0001Stella Rimington is the former head of MI5, apparently the inspiration behind the casting of Judi Dench as “M” in the James Bond films. Since leaving that position she has written her autobiography and several thrillers based on the spy world she knew. At Risk is the first of her books that I’ve read.

The first adult books I read (as a child and young teenager) were spy fiction as were some of my favourite TV shows at that time. And James Bond films were some of the first non-Disney films I saw. I loved that kind of thing – even though I’m sure I didn’t understand a lot of the “not suitable for children” content.

Considering the content of those books and films, the spy world of my childhood was clearly one of fantasy: world travel, glamour, bravery and ingenuity under extreme circumstances…
All very different from the more authentic (?) world Stella Rimington portrays in At Risk. I place the “?” after authentic because I have no way of knowing whether there is authenticity but I found the situations were plausible and the characters convincing.

Liz Carlyle is Rimington’s intelligence agent from MI5. In this book she investigates an anticipated terrorist attack, liaising with other intelligence and law enforcement agencies to track down the suspected terrorists and their target before their plans can be carried out.

The investigation relies on paper trails, computer networks and intuition instead of fast cars, shaken martinis and bedroom exploits. It is more like police work, tracking down leads, following up witnesses, trying to join puzzle pieces together from a headquarters set up in a community hall instead of travelling the glamour spots of the world rubbing shoulders with the rich and powerful.

In the first half of the book every second chapter seemed to introduce new characters and it took a while to find out where they fit into the overall story. Looking back, there is still one chapter and one couple whose purpose I can’t figure out – maybe I missed something and need to check that part again.

In the later chapters, as we find out more about the terrorists and their plans, we get to see their human side. They are not hard, amoral villains deserving a suitably spectacular and just end to their lives. There are emotional and logical reasons motivating them; and we find there are plenty of shadows between the extremes of black and white, right and wrong in the intelligence and military worlds.

I now have two more of Rimington’s books and I look forward to seeing how they compare, but first I still have a third of The Satanic Verses left to read.