Monday, May 17, 2010

At Risk by Stella Rimington

Protagonist: Liz Carlyle
Setting: London and East Anglia
Rating: 4.5

Going into this novel, all I knew was that author Stella Rimington was former director-general of Britain's MI5 Security Service, the first woman to head the agency. I didn't expect much in the way of writing. Fortunately, I was wrong.

In her first book (she's now written five) Rimington has crafted a taut, well-written spy thriller with a strong female protagonist, Liz Carlyle, a 34-year-old agent-runner for MI5. Liz is a no-nonsense type of person, who puts personal relationships second to her work.

In this first book, post-Sept. 11, Liz and her colleagues are on the hunt for an "invisible" -- "the ultimate intelligence nightmare: the terrorist who, because he or she is an ethnic native of the target country, can cross its borders unchecked, move around that country unquestioned, and infiltrate its institutions with ease." There are actually two terrorists who have teamed up. For what purposes, we don't know immediately. What helps elevate this beyond a typical spy thriller are the well-drawn characters, including the two terrorists. In alternating chapters, we get their viewpoint, and a glimpse into what drives them.

Most of the procedural aspects also ring true and, except for a slightly over-the-top denouement, the story seems a realistic one. If you're looking for a smart spy thriller, stop right here.

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