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Christian Science Monitor
Monday, April 11th, 2005


At Risk: A Novel

by Stella Rimington

A spy comes in from the cold

A review by Faye Bowers

She was the beautiful, young wife of a British diplomat in the late 1960s, at the height of the cold war. She lived in New Delhi -- a battleground where spies soldiered underground like ants to influence the epic battle between Western-style democracy and Communism.

Among the most important duties for this young diplomat's wife was attending the all- important embassy function: the cocktail party. And it was at one of these that Stella Rimington got a tap on the shoulder -- the quintessential recruitment effort made infamous by spymeisters John le Carré and Charles McCarry.

It was the head of a small contingent of MI5, Britain's domestic intelligence service, who tapped Ms. Rimington. He enlisted her to become his clerk-typist; never mind that she was trained as a historical archivist and didn't know how to type. Her "real" job, it turns out, was to attend as many of these meet-and-greet soirees as possible and attempt to identify other countries' spies for her compatriots.

Thus began a lengthy career, during which Rimington worked her way up through MI5's counterespionage, countersubversion, and counterterrorism units to become the first female director of MI5, and the first to be publicly named.

She's now retired, but is keeping her fingers in the business, so to speak. Her first spy novel, At Risk, a thriller about a terrorist's plot to launch an attack in Britain, was recently released in the US.

Rimington, like members of the CIA and the FBI, is not permitted to reveal sources or methods. Still, she says she has a lot to impart about the intelligence business. Spinning tales about terror scenarios, she can contribute to the world's understanding of what it takes to fight the war on terror.

"I needed to do something domestically based, to show how these things are dealt with on the home front," Rimington says. "I needed to show how secret organizations operate, how the people who work there live and deal with their families."

At Risk is a chilling, realistic tale about a Pakistani terrorist, Faraj Mansour, who steals his way into Britain, where he meets an "invisible" who's a member of the same Islamic organization he belongs to. But she's young, British, and female, and so undetectable as a spy. She cleans up Mansour and helps him blend into society so that they can hatch their plan together.

The plot employs all the tradecraft and rich historical detail with which Rimington is intimately familiar. For instance, the terrorist Mansour comes from the Northwest Frontier region of Pakistan, an area Rimington had traversed with her husband before receiving that tap on the shoulder in New Delhi.

It's one of the reasons she nibbled at the bait at the embassy party, she recalls. Because of that trip, she'd been reading Rudyard Kipling's Kim, the story of what he called the "great games," the battle that took place in the Northwest frontier region between Russia and Britain where intelligence operatives -- from both sides -- posed as local tribesmen.

Her novel abounds in rich detail about the characters' lives, motives, and methods. The heroine, Liz Carlyle, is a young intelligence agent for MI5, and, Rimington admits, has a background similar to her own. On her way to work the morning the book opens, Liz considers her possibly inappropriate pointy-toed plum shoes, the relationship she's having with a married man, and her mother's "well-intentioned homily about Meeting Someone Nice."

That sets the tone for relationships that are woven throughout the book. Agents more often than not end up in close relationships with their colleagues because they can't discuss their work with anyone else.

Liz's life grows more complicated when she attends a terrorism conference with a colleague named Bruno Mackay, an agent for MI6 (Britain's foreign intelligence service), whom she doesn't entirely trust. At the conference, they find out that a terrorist group called Children of Heaven is attempting to place an "invisible" in England.

They also learn that a Pakistani terrorist is on the move, possibly exploiting a weak point of entry into Europe. From then on, it's a race against time to prevent an attack -- and to turn the pages fast enough to determine if they do. The story line is about synthesizing apparently random information, human intelligence, technical capabilities, and good common sense. Or luck.

"Of course, luck is essential," Rimington says. "And it is all about connecting the dots. You get snippets here and there. The secret is to make the connections, and you do that through experience and common sense, and systems in place to get the snippets to the right place."

Rimington's novel effectively moves the spy thriller from the cold war to the war on terror, and effectively updates the intelligence genre. Her heroine, for instance, is a woman, as is one of the two lead terrorists. That, she says, reflects the new reality. When Rimington left MI5 in 1996, the gender mix was about 50-50, although women were not spread evenly throughout the ranks.

Most important, though, this novel written by a veteran of the spy game goes a long way in illustrating how both the intelligence community and terror organizations operate in today's world.

Faye Bowers is a Monitor reporter in Washington who writes about intelligence issues.

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