CLOSE CALL: Stella Rimington
Stella Rimington was the first woman to be appointed Director General of MI5, the secret service and counter-intelligence agency of UK, and has written seven Liz Carlyle novels before this on her mission to “rescue spy stories from the blokes.” Liz Carlyle and MI5 have been assigned the task of watching the unofficial arms trade that has been booming in the Middle East in the wake of the Arab Spring. The action in the book begins with a CIA agent Miles Brookhaven in Yemen, being attacked in a souk. Miles is trying to pry from a corrupt Yemeni minister the secrets of an under-the-counter arms deal. The bits of information revealed by the minister points to a meeting in Berlin which must be tracked. The cat and mouse game soon shifts to Paris and ultimately to Manchester. There is also the realization that the arm shipment is not for anti-government rebels of the Arab Spring; but for hard core jihadists sworn to commit some serious damage on European soil. Liz’s team has its work cut out. First, it has to make sure the arms do not get into the wrong hands ad do not reach their destination. They also have to try and not warn off the players in the drama so that they can catch the culprits with enough evidence to secure a prosecution.
There are somethings Rimington does rather well. She creates a neat plot involving an interesting ensemble of characters – ranging from intelligence officers in Berlin, Paris and London, and an intelligence officer turned rogue, to owners of a swanky club in London, a black university student of African studies and a droll old woman in an unremarkable neighborhood in Manchester. She stages the trailing of suspects very realistically, with every move described in full detail. If the culprit is taking anti-surveillance steps like moving into a train at the last moment or going to an airport and hiring a car from there instead of taking a flight, the surveillance team tries to be one up on him by deploying policemen at every station and giving up the chase on the highway where the CCTV can do the job. There is a very convincing scene where Liz’s assistant Peggy poses as an electoral rolls girl to befriend an old woman and get her to talk about her Yemeni neighbour.
Also, being a woman writer of espionage thrillers there are a few things she does differently. Relationships, involving both the law enfrocing personnel and those trying to avoid the law, are not dismissed in a few sentences. The entanglement of professional and personal lives is captured with as much attention as the unravelling of the central narrative. The slow-burning romance between Liz and her current love in the French intelligence unit as well as the weakness the rogue officer Martin Seurat has for his glamorous wife Annette are written into the story quite seamlessly. And Rimington is not afraid to let her characters show emotions. After a particularly traumatic incident, Liz suddenly ‘started to cry, then cried, and cried until she could cry no more.’
There are deaths – two from the law enforcing side, two from among the bad guys and two from the ranks of people who get drawn into the conflict unintentionally, kind of evenly balanced you could say – helping create a believable scenario of crime fighting, where there are casualties and costs, and collateral damage.
Rimington’s biggest achievement is that she creates an espionage thriller where characters and situations are relatable as normal and not something fantastic. Even the career of an intelligence agent or an investigating officer is treated like any ordinary profession which people choose after some deliberation or through a set of accidents and try their best to shine in. The gender politics of workplace is dealt with in the beginning where Liz must deal with hostile male colleagues who haven’t take her elevation very kindly. Later when she has to interact with an unsavoury police officer she had a brief affair with (which she broke off due to his unethical professional behaviour) and shows a bit of sternness, the man tries to take advantage of their past and says, ‘I don’t need a lecture from someone I bedded years ago.’ She replies coolly, ‘There’s no point in insulting me Jimmy. It won’t help you or the investigation. Let’s get the business done without getting personal then I can go away and leave you alone.’
What Rimington aims for most of the time is authenticity and credibility more than clever inventions and the exotic. And in Liz Carlyle she creates an intelligence officer in whom you are invested in as a person. It also helps that the narrative holds as much tension and suspense as any other novel dealing with international crime and its prevention.
(This was originally published in the Sunday Book Review section of the Deccan Herald.)
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