At Risk Paperback – Oct 3 2005
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From Publishers Weekly
The first woman director general of Britain's MI5, Rimington speaks smartly about workplace issues while ratcheting the tension high in her authoritative debut thriller. Enter Liz Carlyle, an agent-runner with a taste for vintage clothes; her married lover, Mark Callendar, whom she doesn't love; and an appealing head of section, Charles Wetherby. You don't need Liz's deductive powers to figure out that Wetherby will eventually succeed Mark, who terminally annoys Liz by leaving his wife. Liz is married to her job. Small wonder: it doesn't get more exciting than this. The Islamic Terror Syndicate (ITS) may be about to deploy an "invisible"—"an ethnic native of the target country"—and only Liz can pull together all the threads. Rimington infuses the chase with moral complexity by making the invisible a real human being, no matter that she boasts a fake name and has "become a cipher, a selfless instrument of vengeance, a Child of Heaven." Most of the characters feel authentic, although Rimington occasionally goes on about strangers briefly glimpsed and introduces several wryly flirtatious male agents too many. She is open about having had an assist with the structure of the book, but the voice rings true, and she keeps faith with a genre she clearly venerates.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
"Tense and terrifying"
Praise for Stella Rimington’s autobiography Open Secret:
“The story of MI5’s transformation is fascinating. So too is Rimington’s account of her rise in what was very definitely a man’s world.”
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Top Customer Reviews
As an older reader who is used to a flowing narrative, I found that the fragmented short chapters were a bit confusing, although the various "threads" do come together at the end. The book is ideal for the hard-pressed modern reader who goes in for multi-tasking and can only spare a few minutes at a time.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
When Liz gets together with her colleagues in the Joint Counter-Terrorism Group, she learns that Islamic terrorists may be deploying an "invisible" to stage an attack in Great Britain. An "invisible" is an individual who is Western in appearance and has the credentials to blend into his or her surroundings undetected by the authorities. When the mysterious killing of a shadowy figure named Ray Gunter occurs soon after this information is released, alarm bells go off. Gunter was shot with a special type of sophisticated weapon that would unavailable to an ordinary street thug. In addition, Gunter may have been involved in the smuggling of illegal immigrants into England. Could one of these illegals be a terrorist at large? This gives Liz and her team all of the ammunition that they need to start an investigation into a possible act of violence to be carried out in the near future on English soil.
The characters in "At Risk" are all skillfully depicted. Besides Liz, there is her steady boss, Wetherby, who seems to understand Liz better than she does herself. Much to her chagrin, Liz is suddenly forced to work with Bruno Mackay, a member of M16, Britain's foreign military intelligence division, who knows a great deal about the Pakistani terrorist scene. Mackay is an arrogant and handsome man who is as supercilious as he is charismatic. In addition, Rimington goes to great pains to delve into the minds of the terrorists. Rather than dismissing them as crazed and suicidal ideologues, she shows them to be troubled individuals whose agenda has as much to do with deep emotional pain as it does with political and religious philosophy. This gives "At Risk" a depth and complexity that run-of-the-mill spy thrillers often lack.
Rimington has a smooth and fast-paced style. The dialogue is funny, biting, hard-hitting, and realistic. Since Rimington worked for thirty years in Britain's Secret Service and was the first female director general of M15, she knows a great deal about subversion, espionage, and counter-terrorism. Therefore, it is not surprising that "At Risk" is filled with fascinating details about the workings of England's various security organizations.
With all this, "At Risk" would not have worked half as well if Rimington weren't such a terrific storyteller. She plunges us into a dark and forbidding world of hatred, vengeance, murder, and desperation, and she provides no pat answers for the problems posed in the book. "At Risk" is one of the best spy novels of the year and I recommend it highly.
Dame Stella Rimington has, to my way of thinking, a very attractive cast of mind, at least to the extent that it shows in this book. By her own admission her 'narrator' (to all intents and purposes) has a lot of herself in her. If she had tried to suggest otherwise I would not have believed her for an instant. I enjoyed the ironic little asides, especially the one about publishing memoirs in the teeth of official disapproval. I liked this kind of professionalism in respect of the job too. It is the mind-set of a reasonable, dedicated but level-headed woman with a sense of humour and a sense of proportion, making the best sense she can of the terrorist mentality without either ideological blindness on the one hand or fuzzy-headed liberalism on the other. She even shows an engaging detachment regarding her 'narrator's own emotional involvement, and it may be that organising that side of it into a story was a help to her personally. The character-drawing is distinctly good, I should say, although I am curious to know why she chose the name Ray Gunter in one case. A certain Ray Gunter was minister of labour in Harold Wilson's first cabinet in 1964, and Dame Stella is of an age to remember him at least as well as I do. Those were the days when a Labour government was deeply suspect in the intelligence community as having dark and improbable links with a supposed international communist conspiracy, and it could be that they sought such tendencies even in the wholly unprogressive Gunter, a figure as deeply unalluring as the thuggish fisherman and people-smuggler in her tale. Her device of introducing one or two minor characters as observers of the scene here and there works quite well for me, adding a bit of variety to the narrative. The style of writing is light, racy and enjoyable for the most part, though she and her editors between them might have tidied up a few slipshod touches. In particular even in this day and age someone ought to have known that `tempus mutantur' is a howling solecism, and there was a time when no reputable publisher, probably no disreputable one either, would have let `who's' through for `whose'.
The plot-line is good and well sustained in general. I don't know whether the 'narrator's intention to break off her affair was meant to be left hanging in the way it is, but my main difficulty with the story was actually that the intended terrorist atrocity seems, by the standards we are coming to know, comparatively minor. In one respect Dame Stella is ambiguous, and I hope intentionally so. Right at the beginning of the book the 'narrator' highlights the co-operative attitude of the various security agencies in response to the prime minister's demand that turf-wars must not happen in the post-9/11 environment. Right at the end we find out what has actually happened in that respect. The 'narrator' does not emphasise the contrast, and I wonder what the author means us to think. The way the actors behave is not something unique to the world of security, it is what happens in big organisations generally. There is more to intelligence than intelligence in either sense of the word, and Dame Stella can't have reached the position she did without finding that out at an early stage.
Her primary terrorist is not from the usual hate-the-west-in- general school. Instead, he has a particular event to avenge. The other terrorist is well-drawn as a young woman whose life has so starved her emotionally that she needs a cause to make herself whole. Both of these are perfectly understandable and make good sense.
The Brits are drawn from various types, with a moderated version of the vicious turf fights recounted in other Brit spy novels and which make American readers wonder how they ever get anything done.
The heroine is competent, clever, and has streaks of genius, which are to be expected in someone who has risen to her level. You can't get there by plodding.
There are a couple of problems with the book. The first hard clue that gives a starting point to the search for the "invisible" terrorist is the discovery of an armor-piercing bullet at the scene of a murder. It was also a silent shooting. Those who know something of guns are going to be puzzled. Armor-piercing from a pistol? Silent? How do you do that? Rimington attempts to explain it in terms which are hard to follow unless you simply accept the premise. And if you know something about guns, you won't accept the premise without considerably more and clearer explanation. I think I know something about guns and I don't think you can fire a silenced AP round from a pistol, and if you can, Rimington's explanation was unclear. The explanation should have been done better or a different clue should have been used. It was an unnecessary distraction and slowed attention.
At another point, there is an explosion which wounds several people with shrapnel, in a situation where the existence of shrapnel would have been minimal.
At various times, the protagonist gets a call that there is important information coming over her computer. So she hauls out the laptop, fires it up and gets the scoop. This happens in pubs out in the country or temporary command centers. Is all England a wi-fi hot zone? If the computer is being hooked up to a line in the back of the pub, I missed it. Do all pubs have DSL?
In fiction, the author must follow the rules. One of the rules is that, no matter how far-fetched the fictional character, when the character encounters the real world, it has to work as the reader knows the real world. To do otherwise is to reach out from the book, pop the reader in the nose and remind him that this is just ink on paper. The willing suspension of disbelief is damaged.
The female terrorist's epiphany toward the end of the book needs more explanation. We are told how she got to be one way in some detail and having a major change of heart away from that goes too fast.
Having registered the complaints, I have to say that this is a great fictional treatment of the sort of thing we will be facing for the forseeable future. The individual on an individual mission, carrying his danger in his head and using locally available materials to commit an atrocity only killing less than half a dozen people is going to be a terrible problem to solve, and the terrorist organizations can generate a lot of them. Rimington's book could be considered, in addition to its other merits, a procedural on the subject. The problem is that she uses a fairly substantial proportion of the resources available to the nation to catch this twosome. What if there were ten of them?
The story revolves around a prospective terrorist action that is undefined but which is believed to be done by an 'invisible', that is a person in CIA talk who is a native of the country. He has the proper paperwork, a true history, even a family and friends to vouch for him. How do you find such a person? It makes for a damn good story.
Also interesting is the interplay between the various agencies involved. The petty bickering, the CYA. It's far more important to keep your organization clean than to find the bad guy.
At the end I found myself asking, "What do you say to the parents."
The weakness of the book is in the characters. Too many are rather one-dimensional and/or stereotypical. The taciturn but nonethless brilliant M15 supervisor the heroine works under. The sexy officer from rival M16 the heroine must watch out for while they work together. The awkward neglected teenager that finds eastern religion, & ends up becoming a terrorist, simply because she wants to be someone important and/or loved. The characters are more like social traits than people. They are not rounded enough to be truly impressive or memorable. This was the books weakness for me. There are no surprises or original ideas in most of the characters.
Rimington's main character, Liz Carlyle, is not wholly successful as a fictional creation who can sustain a whole book. She does alot of investigating, which carries the book a very along way. However the fact that she is continually presented as clever/intelligent/smart/brilliant etc, gets a bit annoying.
The author also tries to make Liz interesting by giving her 'issues' in her life. A sexy but inappropriate boyfriend, a mother who apparenty doesn't understand her career, problems with chauvinism in the workplace, etc. However all this just seems intended to spice her up as a character, & it doesn't work. Somehow it doesn't ring true. It just makes her seem like a creation which the author doesn't quite know what direction yet to send in.
Overall the book is a real pageturner though. You keep telling yourself "just one more chapter then I'll stop reading". I will definitely read another novel by Stella Rimington as she can write an engaging thriller. As this was her first book I expect the strengths of her writing will continue, & some the problems will be ironed out.