After retiring as Director General of the UK’s security service, MI5, Stella Rimington turned her hand to writing. Her first book was an autobiography, published in 2001, which I read earlier this year. Although I enjoyed it, I found it rather restrained and lacking the punch I had been expecting. I later discovered the reason for this. Before it was published, the book had to undergo a vetting procedure by British security’s top brass, who demanded she remove some of the more fascinating pieces of information.
It was with some interest, therefore, that I picked up one of her novels. With a fictional piece, she would presumably have much freer rein to include the oomph I had been looking for in her autobiography.
Unable to get my hands on the first of her series featuring MI5 officer, Liz Carlyle, I settled for the second, “Secret asset” (there are, to date, nine Liz Carlyle novels).
I was not disappointed. The high drama I had been hoping for in her autobiography was very much in evidence in her fiction.
I don’t know how much of what takes place in this novel is close to real life situations experienced by MI5 officers, but I found the whole thing believable because of the author’s background. Having a unique insight into the security service enables her to write with authority on the subject.
The story involves the investigation of a terrorist group based in London, and gives a vivid portrayal of the dangers faced by secretly recruited agents or sources who pass on information to the security services. It was interesting to read the fictional version after learning about the real thing in the autobiography, and I found the portrait of the agent particularly convincing.
As a protagonist, I found Liz Carlyle a likeable character. She enjoys her job and is respected by her colleagues, and although she’s the main character it’s clear she’s just one part of a well-connected team. Along with her fellow MI5 officers, and the occasional MI6 collaborator, she follows the trail out of London to Oxford, a place she knows well having been a student there.
I enjoyed the combination of locations in the book, from London’s side streets to the academic atmosphere of Oxford and I felt the book moved seamlessly from one place to another. I found the ending satisfying and when I finished the book I had only one regret: that it hadn’t gone on for longer. It left me wanting to read more in the series, and I look forward to tracking them down.