Tuesday, August 31, 2010

DEAD LINE by Stella Rimington

Two months ago (two years after it was released in the UK), Dead Line, Stella Rimington’s fourth spy novel about MI5 officer Liz Carlyle, was published in America. The book is a study in looking for something without knowing precisely what it is. Carlyle’s attempt to uncover a deadly plot designed to disrupt a Middle East peace conference is just that kind of puzzle, as is her search for Mr. Right, which serves as the novel’s subsidiary plot.

Just weeks before multiple heads of state are to arrive at Gleneagles in Scotland for a Mideast Peace summit, MI6 (Britain’s rough equivalent of the CIA) relays intelligence to MI5 (Britain’s rough equivalent of the FBI) suggesting that two undercover operatives with ties to Syria have hatched a plan to disrupt the high-level gathering and scuttle any hopes for peace. Carlyle gets the case and uses both systematic investigation and intuition to narrowly avert disaster.

Carlyle is searching in earnest on the romantic front as well. But wouldn’t you know it, the available men in her life are unappealing boors, while all the good ones are taken. Yet by novel’s end, Rimington hints at a budding romance. Something to look forward to in book five?*

Every protagonist needs a sidekick. Lord Peter has his Bunter, Don Quixote his Sancho Panza, and Liz Carlyle her Peggy Kinsolving. Peggy is as literal minded as Liz is intuitive, and together they cover the territory. Perhaps they also represent two sides of Rimington’s personality.

I was introduced to Rimington by John Wilson’s August 16 Books & Culture podcast. Rimington, I learned, was the first woman to serve as Director General of MI5. After 27 years in the spy trade, she settled into a directorship at Marks & Spencer and began to write books about spooks. Since I am drawn to authoritative writers, I wanted to read espionage fiction by someone who wasn’t making everything up.

Stella Rimington’s writing is competent, though it lacks the breathless thrills often associated with the genre. No matter. With a steady hand, she paces her satisfying plot step by methodical step.

Next up for me will be Rimington’s nonfiction memoir of her MI5 years, Open Secret. It’s due back at Wheaton College’s Buswell Memorial Library in just five weeks. I’ll make a note to pick it up
*Rimington's earlier Liz Carlyle novels are, in order of publication, At Risk, Secret Asset, and Illegal Action. The fifth novel, Present Danger, is available in the U.K.

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