My ever-continuing search for effective spy novelists takes us next to the unimaginatively titled At Risk (2004), the first novel by former MI-5 Director-General Stella Rimington, who brings years of experience in the real intelligence world to this fictional tale of British security service efforts to prevent an imminent terrorist attack.
Rimington’s hero is Liz Carlyle, an officer of MI-5’s counter-terrorist section, who finds herself running point on an important case, tracking the infiltration of an “invisible” (a terrorist agent who can move freely in the target country by virtue of ethnicity and language) onto British soil. Saddled semi-reluctantly with an erratic MI-6 partner named Bruno Mackay, Carlyle puts her considerable investigative abilities to the test across the British coastlines and countryside, attempting to thwart a jihadist attack that ties into local organized crime, an immigrant-smuggling ring, the US military presence in England, and more.
Rimington’s writing is crisp and effective, with an authoritative voice, and the book is nicely paced and engrossing, focusing primarily on Liz, but also ricocheting through other points of views, including various bystanders and the terrorists themselves. As one might expect in light of the author’s pedigree, there’s an unmistakeable ring of authenticity to the tradecraft and detective guesswork. Indeed, there’s more conventional puzzle-solving on display than intelligence service politics — unfortunately, perhaps, as it gives the novel more of a conventional mystery novel feel. Rimington introduces late surprises that help, but also attempts to link her hero with the villain in a profound moment of mutual recognition that doesn’t entirely come off. Even so, the milieu is promising, and these complaints feel pretty trivial in light of the book’s well handled mysteries and effortlessly read prose. I’ll definitely be adding the author’s other novels to my to-read queue.