“At Risk” by Stella Rimington
Liz Carlyle is the head of the counter terrorism unit for MI5 in “At Risk” and she is having a bad day. It’s possible that an ‘invisible’ is on his way to England by way of Pakistan. An invisible is a terrorist that is an ethnic native of the target country, so is able to move around without suspicious eyes hindering the objective. Add to that, Liz has a boyfriend who wants to leave his wife for her and is pressuring Liz for a commitment. Bad idea, since any court proceedings and resulting publicity would expose Liz’ real identity. Her career would be over. At the very least she’d be viewed at MI5 as a female home wrecker, rather than the highly qualified agent that she is. Pass the aspirin.
Carlyle receives intelligence from a questionable source and tries to hand it off to a police unit more suitable for investigating the information, without success. When a fisherman is killed under suspicious circumstances near where the ‘invisible’ may be arriving, and it somehow ties into the dubious intel, Carlyle must look into it herself. She travels to the coast of England to verify the facts and what she uncovers is alarming. The murder may have accidentally exposed both a smuggling ring and Islamic terrorism on the English coast.
Written shortly after September 11th, the “At Risk” plot thread involving the terrorists is disturbing, not because it is especially violent, but instead because it is so matter-of-fact. A man calmly announces that he killed someone the night before and the woman who is cutting his hair quietly accepts this. ‘If he had to do it, it must have been necessary,’ she thinks. They could just as easily have been chatting about getting the car repaired. The men and women in “At Risk” who have been thoroughly trained to kill without a second thought are so outwardly normal. They could be the neighbors down the street. Invisible.
MI5 recognizes that there must be a threat to national security, but cannot uncover what it is. A race against time, details of tradecraft, close calls, defections, shaky intelligence analyses, bombs, double-crosses, flat-out lying to fellow agencies – all combine to create the perfect mix of deception and patriotism that maintains the suspense from beginning to end.
The damp chill of the gray English countryside served as a foreboding backdrop to the various subplots in the book. Carlyle complains about the cold, deals with raw afternoons in unheated, coffee-free spots, waiting for suspects to arrive or interviews to begin. Having been to Great Britain several times in the Fall, I’ve often wondered how the Brits ever warm up and “At Risk” renews that question.
This debut novel written by the former head of MI5, is riveting. Rimington was the first female Director General of MI5 and the first person to be announced publicly as its head. Carlyle does a juggling act with her work and personal lives, as Rimington must have done in her real life. She brings that complex background to this authentic depiction of the changing world of espionage in an excellent post 9-11 novel.
Please visit www.stellarimington.com to read about Rimington’s fascinating career and the books she has written since her dramatic debut into the world of fiction.