Some of my pleasure-reading can be hard work – a necessary side effect of my fondness for challenging science fiction, I suppose. On the other hand, there’s Stella Rimington, whose fourth novel Dead Line (2008) feels a little like slipping into comfortable shoes, at this point. As ever featuring the redoubtable Liz Carlyle of MI-5, Dead Line is once again smooth, enjoyable wheelhouse-reading for me, but ultimately felt like a lesser entry in the series.
Still working in counter-espionage, Liz’s case this time involves a potential threat to an important Middle East peace conference being held in Scotland. Intelligence reports indicate that someone may be trying to derail Syrian participation at the meeting, and Liz and company work quickly to suss out the threat based on scant early leads. Meanwhile, Liz juggles her professional duties with the ongoing dramas of her neglected personal life, even as the investigation – which finds British, American, Syrian, and Israeli interests clashing in a complicated web – puts her squarely in harm’s way.
Dead Line contains all the same elements I’ve enjoyed from the previous books – engaging investigative legwork, contentious intelligence service politics, an authentic tone, effortlessly read prose. It may be too many of those same elements, though. Reading the Carlyle books feels a little like following a long-running TV show, and like a lot of long-running TV shows, it’s starting to feel a little tired in its later seasons. The main threat, which finds Liz and MI-5 tracking down a manipulative agent working to turn a peace negotiation into a powderkeg, provides the requisite tangle of mysteries and deceptions, but the build-up comes to something of an anticlimactic payoff. Liz’s personal life, meanwhile, is as mundane as she feels it is, and trods familiar ground: she’s still concerned about her careerism blotting out her social life, she’s still worried about her mother, she’s still romantically interested in her unavailable boss. So even as it tosses up the scenes and actions and plots one’s come to expect, it all feels a little like treading water.
I still enjoyed the brisk, effortless read, though, and I’ll probably still tune in for “season five,” but hopefully it will shake up its formula a little next time.