After a few science fiction books, I felt the need to turn back to spy novels for a while — it puts me in a good headspace for working on Subnetworks. Stella Rimington’s series of novels featuring MI-5 agent Liz Caryle is shaping up like an addictive, evolving TV series for me, and continues to improve with each book.
As Illegal Action (2007) opens, fallout from the dramatic events of Secret Asset have lead Carlyle to be reassigned from Counter-Terrorism to Counter-Espionage; rather than preventing terrorist threats, her new job is to keep tabs on rival intelligence services. In light of the fall of the Iron Curtain, Counter-Espionage has become something of a secondary department, but the work presents challenges just as sticky. Word at a European joint services meeting suggests their may be a Russian “illegal” (an intelligence officer functioning secretly outside the target nation’s embassy) on the way to London. Meanwhile, inchoate reports surface of the possible political assassination of an expatriate Russian oligarch named Nikita Brunovsky. This leads to an awkward assignment for Liz, who is tapped by a meddling Foreign Office official for a risky undercover assignment in the wealthy Brunovsky’s retinue of circling sycophants, parasites, and outright crooks. The scattered intelligence eventually comes together, but not before Liz finds herself squarely in the crosshairs of a nefarious Russian retribution plot.
I really enjoyed the first two books in the series, and Illegal Action essentially delivers more of the same, but evolves its world and shifts its focus. The move away from terrorism to straight espionage is a welcome one, refreshing Rimington’s formula of introducing disparate, cloudy information and gradually weaving it together into a coherent picture. The characters are memorable and well drawn, and the pace is as quick and engaging as ever. This series continues to deliver the goods for me.