Sep 4, 2008

Book Review: Secret Asset by Stella Rimington

Following up on her stellar debut novel, At Risk, former Director General of MI-5 Stella Rimington delivers another gripping, contemporary and successful espionage procedural in Secret Asset. The big surprise in the first novel was just how good a writer Ms. Rimington turned out to be. I suppose I shouldn’t have been shocked, though; there’s a reason so many former spooks* (Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene, Ian Fleming and John Le Carré, to name a few) make great novelists. The two professions call upon the same skill sets to a large degree. Both understand the importance of details, and it’s details that fuel books like this. Both are trained in character development, whether its analyzing the behavior of an actual person to predict their next move, or creating a believable human being from scratch. And both professions require an abundance of creativity, whether it’s used for plotting ingenious intelligence operations or planning circuitous spy plots... which often amount to the same thing! Still, such hidden talents are rarely expected of former bureaucrats–deservedly or not–so it was a welcome surprise to learn that Rimington was such a good author.

Secret Asset is equally well-written, if not quite as vital as its predecessor. While the first book seemed literally torn from the headlines (or, our imaginations urge us, top secret MI-5 files), the plot of Secret Asset seems more... well, like the plot of a novel. But those details still seem to ring true (not that readers have any way of knowing for sure), and they’re what make the book such a fascinating read.

Rimington’s heroine (and one assumes, though probably incorrectly, surrogate to some degree), Liz Carlyle is a compelling creation. She’s not quite as human as George Smiley, but she certainly leads a more regular life than James Bond, and as a reader, it’s a pleasure to once more be in her company. Liz may be the main character, but her’s certainly isn’t the only perspective we’re afforded. One of the reasons Rimington’s books seem so real is because she demonstrates how many people are involved in any sort of large-scale MI-5 operation. And, not needing the budget to retain stars on a weekly basis, she does a much better job with that than Spooks, which, while wonderfully dramatic, would generally have us believe that the fate of Britain rests squarely on the shoulders of just five or six individuals.

Liz Carlyle doesn’t do everything herself. She’s an agent-runner, so she’s not the one shooting out that bad guy’s tires at the finale; that’s a Special Branch sniper whose specific job is to shoot out bad guys’ tires. Liz doesn’t run her own surveillance and she doesn’t sweep suspects’ flats for hidden secrets; she lets specialists in those fields handle those tasks. And sometimes we get the specialists’ perspectives.

We spend a lot of time with Liz’s colleague Dave Armstrong, who handles more field work than Liz in Secret Asset. Dave is always popping up in different guises, and it’s a little unnerving to realize just how chameleon-like MI-5 can be. Dave is all things to all people; he pops up as a policeman, a rental agent, and the British equivalent of a DMV employee when interviewing different people. It’s very cool, but also a little scary. Even though Rimington’s MI-5 are definitely the good guys, I’m still kind of glad that America doesn’t have a domestic intelligence service!

Besides Liz and Dave, there are a number of chapters that focus on incidental characters who play a small role in events, often unwittingly. Besides providing good slice-of-life narratives, these chapters serve two purposes. First, they demonstrate how many people–ordinary people–are involved in such complex plots and investigations, even indirectly. Second (and this may be no more than a happy accident), it serves as a sort of public service announcement for MI-5 and other law enforcement showing that ordinary citizens can make a difference in the war on terror. Kind of like those ultra-patriotic WWII spy movies that impressed upon citizens how much they could do to help stop Nazi spies and aid the war effort. So much of Liz’s progress wouldn’t happen if it weren’t for a neighbor noticing something out of the ordinary and reporting it, or a news agent recalling a seemingly insignificant detail about a suspect for a policeman.

Secret Asset is Rimington’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; it’s her “mole hunt” book. Liz is tasked with identifying a mole within the Service who was recruited by the IRA while at Oxford in the early 90s, but was never activated. Rimington quickly dispels any notions that a mole today couldn’t be as dangerous as back during the Cold War (or the Troubles). If someone is willing to sell out their country to one buyer, what’s to stop them from doing the same thing for another? Just because the IRA never activated their secret asset doesn’t mean nobody did... and the clock starts ticking faster when Liz realizes that one of her suspects may now be aiding Islamic extremists.

It’s no accident that the backgrounds of the various suspects mirror the suspects’ backgrounds in Le Carré’s famous novel. Rimington is not just knowledgeable in spy fact; she’s clearly well-versed in spy fiction as well. Besides the Le Carré references, she name-checks Ken Follet; one of her fictional spooks is reading Day of the Jackal. She’s studied the masters of the form, and it clearly pays off in crafting excellent spy fiction. But it perks my curiosity. When did she read these spy novels? Was it only after retiring, in preparation for embarking on a career as a novelist, or was it during her lengthy tenure with MI-5? The idea of actual intelligence officers reading spy fiction amuses me for some reason, but I suppose it makes perfect sense. We like to read and watch things about what we do; surely that accounts for the wild success of shows like The Office. Then again, I can’t imagine someone going to sleep with their nose in a Le Carré book after a long day of hard work at the real life Circus. Wouldn’t it be too depressing?

These aren’t the only questions I find myself asking about Rimington’s synthesis of fiction and facts drawn from her previous life. Her experience definitely adds immensely to her novels; even though I obviously have no way of knowing if all her details are factual or not, they certainly have the ring of truth. While inordinately careful not to divulge any state secrets, Rimington writes with a familiarity that could only be gained from life experience. All those details pay off in creating her fictional Service. But she also brings some extra-textual baggage with her. I just can’t help constantly wonder, which parts are true and which are simply the tools of a gifted novelist?

For instance, both of her first two books feature rogue British agents. We’re used to that scenario from shows like 24 and Spooks, but does it actually happen so often in real life? And are as many terrorists really motivated by personal revenge as they are in her books? It does make sense that people would need personal incidents to drive them to violent acts of extremism, but isn’t religion or hatred sometimes enough on its own? I really don’t know. Dame Stella clearly has way more experience with such people than I do, so I’m willing to give her the benefit of the doubt, but I still can’t help wondering. Where does the fact end and the fiction begin?

I doubt we’ll ever know for sure, but these burning questions will continue to supplement the reader’s enjoyment of Rimington’s books, as they do those of Le Carré, Greene and others. Rimington is frustratingly tightlipped on some matters (regarding anti-terror legislation, Liz is has her own opinions “like many in her profession,” but chooses to “keep her own counsel.”), but lends enough veracity to her world to make her fictions believable and highly compelling. And, of course, she’s savvy enough in the rules of spy fiction to pen terrific thrillers.

*A word that I think has come to encompass all intelligence professionals, not just field operatives. Most writers seem to come from administrative or agent-running backgrounds.

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