At Risk

by Stella Rimington

Published by Alfred A. Knopf

384 pages, 2005

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Jeopardy Champ

Reviewed by Anthony Rainone


Stella Rimington's well-turned-out and tautly paced debut novel, At Risk, succinctly makes the point that the United States is not the only country currently preoccupied with the threat of Middle Eastern terrorism. Set in London and its environs, this thriller shows that the price Great Britain pays for aligning itself with George W. Bush's bellicose policies is to risk violence being exported to its own shores. Rimington knows full well the dangers she is portraying here: She was formerly the first woman director general of British Secret Service MI5, and her considerable experience brings a frightening realism to this yarn. Though she's a novice at fiction-writing, her natural talent appears to be enormous. The thriller genre has just gained an exceptional new voice.

At Risk is told in third-person, which effectively inserts the reader not only into the mind of Liz Carlyle, a British MI5 operative, but also into the thinking of her terrorist adversaries. Those alternations between character points of view enhance this story's tension, and create the illusion that the reader is part of the inner circle of events. Carlyle possesses deductive capabilities and a compulsion to follow up that makes her exceptional as an agent-runner. She also bears an unexpected degree of sensitivity toward her charges in the highly exciting, yet equally dangerous field of covert operations. As Rimington explains early on in this novel:

Reading through the Marzipan file at her desk in 5/AX, Liz Carlyle felt the familiar sick unease. As an agent-runner, anxiety was her constant companion, an ever-present shadow. The truth was grimly simple: if an agent was to be effective, then he or she had to be placed at risk.

Carlyle is no cookie-cutter, squeaky-clean governmental sort. Sure, there are workaday rules by which she must abide, such as a need to don business clothes that "lay somewhere between somber and invisible," but messy edges keep rearing up in her private life. The most exceptional of these is that she's having an affaire d'amour with a married man, Mark Callendar. Carlyle knows that this liaison is not the best thing for any party involved, but she isn't so concerned about whether it's immoral. Rather, she understands that she cannot afford the potential for the affair to become complicated and public. Good agents don't draw attention to themselves -- they blend in and aren't "memorable." When Callendar offers to leave his wife for Carlyle, the implications are frightening, rather than welcome.

The main thrust of At Risk is established near the book's outset, as concerns are voiced at the weekly Joint Counter-Terrorist meeting that the Islamic Terror Syndicate -- "spook" jargon for what is really a loose agglomeration of Islamic militant organizations, such as Al Qaeda, Hamas and Islamic Jihad -- is planning to "deploy an invisible."

The calculated theatricality of his delivery did not lessen the impact of his statement. An "invisible" was CIA-speak for the ultimate intelligence nightmare: the terrorist who, because he or she is an ethnic native of the target country, can cross its borders unchecked, move around that country unquestioned, and infiltrate its institutions with ease. An invisible was the worst possible news.

Although she comes across at first as more of a capable functionary than anything else, Carlyle soon shows her innate ability to pick up snatches of information and synthesize them into the real threat they represent. After an informant, Frankie Ferris, comes to her with information about a large "drop-off Friday, at the headland [in Norfolk]. Twenty, plus a special, from Germany," Carlyle decides to look into this smuggling operation, sure that it's nothing more than a drug or illegal alien ring, but wanting to double-check that terrorism isn't involved. When she discovers that a local fisherman was killed with a 7.62-mm armor-piercing bullet on the night in question, an alarm goes off in her head. It's an unusual caliber to use in a crime, and though the local police in Marsh Creake aren't particularly suspicious, things quickly take on ominous overtones. Carlyle ultimately becomes convinced that she is not only tracking a terrorist smuggled in from Germany, but that the previously mentioned "invisible" is aiding him.

Working alongside Carlyle is Bruno Mackay, an MI6 operative. The MI5 and MI6 intelligence departments ostensibly exchange covert intelligence information, yet they also share a spirit of competitiveness and a willingness to withhold key information from one another. (While the MI5 is responsible for protecting the UK from major threats to national security, MI6 is primarily charged with gathering intelligence outside the UK in support of the government's security.) Mackay is a suave agent, a man who dresses well, boasts a "deep tan" and is attracted to the ladies -- and vice versa. His knowledge of Middle Eastern history and politics is extensive, thanks to his having served at one time in Pakistan. Mackay oozes confidence, yet he is no James Bond. He lacks, most crucially, a sense of fair play, which is obvious in his dealings with Carlyle. He knows that the terrorists will make mistakes ("They almost always do"), and he seems suspiciously content to let Carlyle find them on her own. While he joins her in the quest to track down the terrorists, Mackay appears to relish merely being in Carlyle's company, though clearly the MI6 operative must have outside intelligence information that could speed matters up. Although there's sexual tension between the attractive, confident Carlyle and the frisky, debonair Mackay, the critical matter at hand -- and Carlyle's professional wariness toward her colleague's ulterior motives -- keeps this pair from diving beneath the sheets together.

Author Rimington captures the personalities and motivations of her intelligence operatives, but she does an equally expert job of giving fascinating dimension to the two terrorists Carlyle is hunting here. Early on, Carlyle receives a good tip from Germany regarding a Pakistani auto mechanic named Faraj Mansoor, who has bought a fake British driver's license. Mansoor indeed makes the trip in the smuggler's boat to the Norfolk coast, carrying a knapsack that contains something ominous. Rimington only slowly reveals the fire behind Mansoor's willingness to take lives, and while his acts may be repulsive and violent on their face, his motivations are not wholly unsympathetic. Mansoor is no one-dimensional, Hollywood-style Muslim spouting twisted Islamic theology; rather, he's a principled man who was at one time a supporter of the West. Rimington shines a spotlight in these pages on the unintended devastation visited upon innocent people amid the so-called war on terror, and Mansoor's actions represent one result of that ruin. His retribution is wrong, but his indignation is not unreasonable.

Carlyle's other quarry here is the pseudonymous Lucy Wharmby, a native Briton and Mansoor's "invisible" co-conspirator. Her voice serves as a counterpoint to Carlyle's, though she lacks, in her convictions, the MI5 op's resoluteness. Wharmby, too, recognizes the injustices suffered by the innocents in Afghanistan and Iraq, and her religious studies ultimately take her to terrorist-training camps. But the translation of her sympathies into violent endeavors proves a struggle for this young woman. After taking a young man hostage at one stage of the novel, Wharmby's will is tested:

Behind her back the PSS was heavy in her hand. She smiled at the young man. His knees were drawn up to his face, covering his chest. A head shot, then. The moment was unreal. "Could you just shut your eyes a moment?" she asked him.

The discharge was soundless and the recoil negligible. The youth twitched once, and was dead. It was the simplest thing in the world. The boot closed with a faint hydraulic whisper, and when she turned to Faraj to return the weapon, she knew that nothing now stood between them.

Wharmby learns that it's not so easy to turn deadly concepts of terrorism into deadly deeds. Especially if one takes the time to consider how precious life really is. Wharmby's later encounter, up close, with one of her intended targets points to the redemptive qualities of At Risk.

Rimington's readers can almost hear the clock ticking down, relentlessly, as the chapters of this debut thriller fly by, and Carlyle races to catch Mansoor and Wharmby before they can accomplish what it is they are trying to do. But the attractions of At Risk are to be found not only in its plot twists, but also in the insights it offers into modern spy techniques. For instance, the machinations necessary to discover Wharmby's real identity provide a riveting study in covert information-gathering, analysis and occasionally essential guesswork.

The setting of this novel is a refreshingly contemporary Britain, where most of the operatives and Special Branch police guzzle gallons of coffee, and the supposedly exciting world of counter-intelligence is often reduced to office politics and a quotidian dreariness with which virtually every reader can relate. On top of all that, the author provides just the right measure of dry British humor, plus a poke or two at the landed gentry class. Like any good tour de force novel, and showing an authorial maturity not expected the first time out, At Risk offers no clean or happy endings.

Long a domain of male bravura, the espionage thriller genre has now been given a refreshing and indisputably authentic female perspective. Rimington takes this category of tale and fashions it into not just a testosterone-juiced game of cat and mouse, but rather a storytelling form that also acknowledges human frailty and compassion. Stella Rimington was a groundbreaker in her previous career, and current indications are that she will be as commanding and courageous in her new chosen profession. | February 2005


Anthony Rainone is a contributing editor of January Magazine.