Perhaps like me, you've always wondered: do spies read spy novels? The answer in Stella Rimington's case is an enthusiastic yes. "Oh, very much," insists the first female director general of Britain's MI5 intelligence agency. "I am an avid thriller reader and always have been. That is rather odd actually, that somebody relaxes by reading fictional stories about their own profession, but indeed I do and always have."
Rimington was a diplomatic housewife living in India in 1965 when she was offered a part-time clerical position by the MI5 operative in New Delhi. "I was reading Kipling's Kim at the time and I somehow imagined that it was really going to be rather like the 'great game' that Kipling writes about," she says. "But it turned out not to be like that at all."
Upon her return to London, Rimington joined MI5 full time as an intelligence officer and became successively the director of its countersubversion, counter espionage and counterterrorism branches. In 1992, she became the first woman chief of MI5; more significantly for Rimington, she was also the first director general whose identity was announced publicly, effectively blowing her 25-year cover.
"The press, particularly the tabloids, went mad," she says. "I knew beforehand and wondered whether it was the right thing to do at the time because I knew it was going to have a dramatic effect on me, particularly on my family. We had been protected by anonymity until then; the neighbors didn't know what I did and didn't care frankly. The press very easily found out where we lived and all of a sudden there they were, camped outside the house. We had to sell the house and move eventually, and effectively live covertly. That was a pretty upsetting start to my time as director general."
Rimington held that post until 1996, opening opportunities for women in actual intelligence gathering as opposed to the traditional administrative and clerical roles as characterized by Miss Moneypenny in the Ian Fleming novels. Speaking of Bond, James Bond, Rimington was the model for the first female M, played in the movies by Judi Dench. In reality, MI5 counters domestic threats, similar to our FBI without the police powers; Bond and M would have worked with the more swaggering MI6 foreign service, the equivalent of our CIA.
Rimington followed her distinguished 30-year intelligence career with a tell-some memoir, Open Secrets, that raised plenty of eyebrows at Thames House. Her first novel, At Risk, launches a planned series featuring MI5 intelligence officer Liz Carlyle, a thoroughly modern version of Dame Rimington in her salad days.
In At Risk, Carlyle heads up the search for an "invisible," the agency's worst nightmare, a British native whose ability to cross borders without detection is being used to stage an attack by an Afghan terrorist. Bruno Mackay, a swashbuckling MI6 operative, has just returned from Islamabad to help hunt down the terrorist. Charles Wetherby, Liz's taciturn boss, keeps a watchful eye over his talented young fledgling.
The terrorist has his own reasons for the target he has chosen; the author skillfully parses out this backstory to slowly tighten the tension as Liz works against time to figure out who is likely to end up on the receiving end of a backpack filled with C4 explosives. The invisible, too, has her own reasons for converting to Islam and becoming a Child of Heaven; the question is, can ideology alone overcome her upbringing?
We are immediately drawn to Liz, a focused, serious young career woman intent on using her analytical gifts to both further her career and fend off the testosterone-fueled cowboys like Mackay who would lead her astray in true Bond fashion. Deftly plotted, realistic in dialogue and detail, At Risk is a first-rate thriller with plenty to say about the strengths and weaknesses of the men and women on the front lines of the war on terror. It's also the first spy thriller in recent memory in which nobody goes to bed with anybody except the terrorists. Rimington builds a lovely verisimilitude between the two women antagonists, both struggling to fit into very different male-dominated worlds.
"They are two women who are in a sense fighting against themselves really; one has decided to break with her background and gone over to the other side, and the other one, Liz, is part of the established world but she's constantly asking herself if that's what she wants to do. So I think we've got that divine discontent that women often have that comes with trying to do two things at once and be perfect at everything. Working women, and particularly working mothers, find themselves trying to balance and always being dissatisfied that they haven't done it properly."
The days of Moneypenny are well over at MI5, which currently has a female director general. Rimington says queen and crown are better for it.
"I think women go about these sorts of things in a different way. That is why I think it is so important that women are involved in intelligence work. It adds a diversity to the whole. I don't think women are better at intelligence work than men, but they're different, and when you put the two together, you get a good mix."
But Rimington has no immediate plans to put the genders together in quite the James Bond sense.
"I think one of the difficulties with thrillers is, if you get too involved with the sex side of it, then it tends to take away from the excitement of the plot. We'll have to see; that's something I'm thinking about."
Jay MacDonald writes from Oxford, Mississippi.