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Illegal Actionby Stella Rimington
Synopses & Reviews
The new installment in Stella Rimingtons series of “frighteningly authentic” espionage thrillers (Chicago Tribune) featuring the fiercely intelligent, ambitious MI5 officer Liz Carlyle.
Liz has been transferred to counter-espionage—the hub of MI5 operations during the Cold War, which has been scaled back as anti-terrorism has gained priority. But theres plenty for her to do: there are more spies operating in London in the twenty-first century than there were during the height of East-West hostilities. Even the Russians still have a large contingent, although now they spy on the international financial community and on the wealthy ex-pat oligarchs who make England their domain.
In her new assignment, Liz quickly uncovers a plot to silence one of these Russians: Nikita Brunovsky, an increasingly vocal opponent of Vladimir Putin. The Foreign Office is adamant about forestalling a crime that could become a full-blown international incident, but theres not a single clue as to how the assassination will be carried out—and Liz is solely responsible for averting disaster. So she goes undercover, attaching herself to Brunovskys retinue: racing against the clock to determine who betrayed him and suddenly facing a wholly unexpected second task—unmasking a Russian operative working undercover alongside her.
Dame Stella has once again distilled her experience as the first woman Director General of MI5 into a spy novel of arresting psychological complexity and unflagging suspense.
Stella Rimington joined Britain's Security Service, usually known as MI5, in 1969; in 1992 she became its director general, the first woman to hold that post. Since her retirement in 1996, she's written an autobiography and three novels. "Illegal Action" is the third, and for a spy novel it's rather odd. Indeed, near its end, Rimington's glamorous heroine, Liz Carlyle, reflects that her assignment... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) to protect a Russian billionaire living in London — one of the so-called "oligarchs" — was the "oddest assignment of her career." The reader can only agree as he tries to puzzle out just what message Rimington is sending about the agency she headed. At least in part, she seems to be saying that MI5 is a hotbed of bureaucratic rivalry, male vanity and professional incompetence. She does not, however, put it quite that bluntly. At the outset, Liz Carlyle is transferred from MI5's counterterrorism office to counterintelligence. Because fighting terrorism is where the action is, she considers this a demotion, and she's further angered by her first assignment. There are, we're told, something like 30 Russian billionaires living in London. MI5 receives a report from Moscow that Russian strongman Vladimir Putin may intend to have one of these exiles assassinated as a warning to the others not to oppose him. Liz is rather improbably assigned to protect oligarch Nikita Brunovsky, who is worth 6 billion British pounds, and whose major concerns in London are sex and art collecting. With Brunovsky's approval, Liz goes to work in his Belgravia mansion, posing as an art expert. Liz thinks the assignment is crazy, and we tend to agree, but it does enable Rimington to introduce some colorful characters. The Russian's English girlfriend, Monica, has a past as a high-priced hooker, and most of the people advising him on art and finance prove to be con men. We're treated to some nice descriptions of London, as well as one exciting art auction and another kind of auction when Monica takes Liz to a stylish bar where women of various nationalities try to snare an oligarch. All this is heady stuff for Liz, who despite her glamour has a minimal social life. After a Dutch investment banker dumps her, she enjoys a brief flirtation with a hunky Russian art expert but he, too, proves to be a no-goodnik. In truth, she's infatuated with her boss, Charles Wetherby, one of the few sensible men in MI5, but he has a terminally ill wife and poor Liz can only admire him from afar. Rimington fashions an exciting final confrontation to her story — in a country house in Ireland, of all places — but much of the book's interest lies in her portrait of MI5. She sets the tone when she tells us that the acting head of MI5 "instinctively distrusted MI6 (the Secret Intelligence Service), considering its officers louche individuals who at best were soft on Communism, at worst were secret sympathizers to the Islamic cause." ("Louche," let it be noted, is a word the author uses too often.) She portrays various male colleagues of Liz's as condescending oafs, strutting peacocks and sexist pigs. With regard to tradecraft, she several times shows A4, the surveillance branch, tracking Russian spies through London, and one must view these scenes as deadpan satire. In one, a fellow named Wally, assisted by a dog named Molly, is pretending to be a dog walker as he follows a spy in a London park. The spy huddles with an Englishman, who then hops on a bus. Wally tries to board the next bus, but the driver won't let the dog on: "Them's dangerous. You get off now, mon, or I'm not starting." In subsequent scenes, when A4 is tracking suspected spies, several cars are following and seemingly dozens of agents are on buses, crowding the sidewalks and lurking in parks and doorways. They resemble nothing so much as a British version of the Keystone Kops. "By the time the procession entered Berkeley Square," she begins the climax of one such pursuit, and clearly the former head of MI5 doesn't think that following one spy to Berkeley Square should require the vast "procession" she has described. All that overtime! In perhaps the novel's strangest moment, an unnamed spy reflects: "In her lengthy training, they had made her kill. They took convicts out of the prisons — those who'd been sentenced to death — and put the trainees up against them. At the beginning they'd intervened to make sure the trainees survived. But later in the course, it was a free contest. No one interfered; it was a fight to the death." Reading that, and thinking it was Liz Carlyle reflecting, I was positively gobsmacked. Could our British cousins be so barbaric? Would even Maggie Thatcher have condoned such atrocities? Then, rereading the passage, I realized the unnamed woman was not our Liz, but a Russian who is one of the book's villains. So is Rimington telling us that the dirty commies practiced such beastly behavior? Or is she putting us on? My guess is the latter. As noted, this is a very odd book. Reviewed by Patrick Anderson, whose e-mail address is mondaythrillers(at symbol)aol.com, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
(hide most of this review)
The new installment in Rimington's series of frighteningly authentic ("Chicago Tribune") espionage thrillers features the fiercely intelligent, ambitious MI5 officer Liz Carlyle.
The third thriller from the former head of MI5, featuring MI5 officer, Liz Carlyle.
Liz Carlyle has been transferred to Counter-Espionage, along with her research sidekick Peggy Kingsolving. Once the hub of MI5 operations, the department has been reduced in size since the end of the Cold War, and priority within the service is on counter-terrorism.
Yet there is plenty for Liz to do. In fact, there are more spies operating in London today than during the height of East-West hostilities. This includes Russian spies, who continue to operate in number. What has changed is their targets — now they spy on the international financial community, as well as on the wealthy, influential Russian oligarchs, many of whom live in London.
Liz learns of a Russian government plot to silence one of these oligarchs, Nikita Brunovsky, who is an increasingly vocal opponent of Putin. How he is to be kept quiet is unclear, but since the Foreign Office dreads any kind of incident, Liz is assigned to keep it from happening.
To protect Brunovsky from his Kremlin foes, Liz goes undercover and joins the oligarch's retinue as she tries to determine who around the Russian might be willing to betray him, and hoping at the same time to learn the identity of a certain Russian illegal operative working undercover.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
About the Author
Stella Rimington joined Britains Security Service (MI5) in 1969. During her nearly thirty-year career she worked in all the main fields of the Services responsibilities—counter-subversion, counter-espionage, and counter-terrorism—and successively became Director of all three branches. Appointed Director General of MI5 in 1992, she was the first woman to hold the post and the first Director General whose name was publicly announced on appointment. Following her retirement from MI5 in 1996, she became a nonexecutive director of Marks & Spencer and published her autobiography, Open Secret, in the United Kingdom. Rimington lives in London.
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