By Stella Rimington; Bloomsbury (2016); 362 pp.
I like a good spy story. It's probably my favourite literary genre. John Le Carre, Ted Allbeury, Len Deighton, even Ian Fleming in his earlier novels – all great yarn spinners, all great practitioners of the art of literary espionage. Stella Rimington is a relative latecomer to this group of writers, but she comes with impeccable background credentials: she is a former head of MI5, the U.K.'s internal security organisation. As well as her autobiography, she has written a number of spy stories featuring her star character, Liz Carlyle, an agent of MI5. "Breaking Cover" is her latest Liz Carlyle adventure.
In an age when Islamic terrorism is grabbing much of the attention of the West's intelligence agencies, it is somewhat refreshing to come across a spy tale which gets back to basics: the ongoing struggle between Russia and the West. In "Breaking Cover", Liz and her fellow MI5 operative, Peggy Kinsolving, are up to their ears in Russian spies.
C, the head of Britain's Secret Intelligence Service, or MI6, decides that a new era of openness and accountability should moderate the traditional secretiveness of MI6. He wants to recruit a Director of Communications whose job will be to act as spokesperson for the agency when dealing with the press and the outside world. Advertisements are placed, headhunters are engaged. A glamorous, young, civil liberties lawyer, Jasminder Kapoor, gets the job. MI6 old-timers are aghast. At the same time, she acquires a mysterious lover who starts getting nosy about her activities.
While all this is going on, word is filtering out from a Russian contact in Ukraine that the FSB, the post-Soviet successor to the KGB, is planning something big in the West. The FSB has "illegals" – long-term Russian agents living in the West under deep cover – in the UK who are planning major disruptions of British institutions, including MI5 and MI6 themselves. So, the hunt is on to find the "illegals" before they can do untold damage to the British security agencies. What is the role of Sergei Patrikov, the super-wealthy but reclusive Russian oligarch who lives in England and is trying to buy the Manchester United football team? Is he innocent, or a stooge for Russian Intelligence? Is Jasminder Kapoor's new boyfriend really an above-board Norwegian banker or something more sinister? And what about Tim, Peggy Kinsolving's own nerdy partner, who has started acting strangely since becoming involved with Edward Snowden-inspired chat groups on the Internet? Our hero Liz has her work cut out to try and pull many disparate threads together, to figure out the Russian plot before it's too late.
Stella Rimington's characters are not just cardboard cut-out Security types wedded to their jobs. They have private lives, they have past histories, which influence what they do. Kapoor's love life with the mysterious Laurenz is an important ingredient of the story. So, too, is Peggy's deteriorating relationship with her long-term partner Tim. Liz herself, though currently without a romantic interest, is still grieving over the death of a previous boyfriend, killed when an MI5 operation in Paris went tragically pear-shaped. Contemporary events, too, help shape the story. The Russian informer in the Ukraine was traumatised by the recent shooting down of the Malaysian airliner, MH 17. Tim and Jasminder are both influenced by Julian Assange's and Edward Snowden's fights against government surveillance.
Although this book is a stand-alone story, it has continuity with some of Rimington's previous novels. Liz, of course, and Peggy her fellow operative, are both established characters from previous stories. Indeed, in this one, Peggy has just about as much of the action as Liz. Then there is Miles Brookhaven, the CIA agent in London, who plays a major role in the story, but has also appeared in previous Stella Rimington spy stories. Geoffrey Fane, the urbane, somewhat supercilious MI6 agent who also hails from earlier Rimington yarns, re-appears too. He is quick to pick holes in other agents' work, but seems to have a grudging respect for Liz's abilities – rather against his better judgement, you get the impression.
I enjoyed this book. I have read several of Rimington's earlier novels, as well as her autobiography, and found them all interesting and entertaining. Her plots are well thought out and engaging, and her characters are well enough developed to be interesting as people, but not over-developed so as to interrupt the flow of the story. Her yarns are not overloaded with too much gun-play or too many dead bodies. Her pacing is good, and she reveals her twists, turns and surprises at good intervals. She does not have the rather more dense or cerebral style of a LeCarre; her writing style is simpler and more direct. Although I am a great fan of LeCarre, I find Rimington's stories easier to follow and easier to read.
Rimington is a former practitioner of the Intelligence dark arts, as are many spy novelists: LeCarre, for example, worked for a while for both MI5 and MI6. I sometimes wonder whether Rimington, as an ex-head of MI5, needs to get clearance from the security services before she can publish stories. I'm pretty sure she had to, for her autobiography. In any event, clearance or no, she knows how to tell a ripping yarn.
I look forward to more Liz Carlyle adventures.
Gilbert's star rating (out of five): * * * * 1/4