Sunday, October 19, 2008

A Stella Event

Stella Rimington signing a copy of her new novel, Dead Line.

Being a voracious reader of espionage fiction, I was excited to be invited recently by Quercus Publishing to join a contingent of crime-fiction reviewers scheduled to meet Dame Stella Rimington, the 73-year-old former head of British intelligence agency MI5. This was of special interest to me, because since she left MI5 a dozen years ago, Rimington has concentrated on writing thrillers.

She first stirred up some controversy, though, by penning her memoir, Open Secret, for Random House UK in 2002. Her then publisher detailed her life this way:
Stella Rimington was educated at Nottingham Girls’ High School, and Edinburgh and Liverpool Universities. In 1959 she started work in the Worcestershire County Archives, moving in 1962 to the India Office Library in London, as Assistant Keeper responsible for manuscripts relating to the period of the British rule in India. In 1965 she joined the Security Service (MI5) part-time, while she was in India accompanying her husband on a posting to the British High Commission in New Delhi. On her return to the UK she joined MI5 as a full-time employee. During her career in MI5, which lasted from 1969 to 1996, Stella Rimington worked in all the main fields of the Service’s responsibilities--counter-subversion, counter-espionage and counter-terrorism--and became successively Director of all three branches. She was appointed Director-General of MI5 in 1992. She was the first woman to hold the post and the first Director-General whose name was publicly announced on appointment. During her time as DG she pursued a policy of greater openness for MI5, giving the 1994 Dimbleby Lecture on BBC TV and several other public lectures and publishing a booklet about the Service. She was made a Dame Commander of the Bath (DCB) in 1995 and has been awarded the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Laws by the Universities of Nottingham and Exeter. Following her retirement from MI5 in 1996, she has become a Non-Executive Director of Marks & Spencer, BG Group plc and Whitehead Mann GKR. She is Chairman of the Institute of Cancer Research and a member of the Board of the Royal Marsden NHS Trust. She has two daughters and a granddaughter.
What also excited controversy was the decision by producers of the James Bond films to cast Dame Judi Dench as Bond’s boss, “M,” in 1995’s Goldeneye. Rumors circulated at the time that Dench’s portrayal of the MI6 chieftain was based on Rimington. (Dench continues in that role in the upcoming movie Quantum of Solace.)

After penning her memoir, Rimington decided to try writing fiction, and started a series of novels featuring MI5 agent Liz Carlyle, which she acknowledges are a reaction to Bond creator Ian Fleming’s portrayal of espionage work. Writing on the Web site, Rimington says:
How should British intelligence respond to the Bond myth? With a rueful smile, as my colleagues and I did when, shortly after I became the first female director general of MI5 (Britain’s internal security service), the character “M,” 007’s boss, became a woman who was clearly modelled on me.

It was not an honour I sought. Quite the opposite, in fact. I was trying, through greater openness, to destroy the popular myth that intelligence work is like a Bond story. But at least it was preferable to the British tabloids’ response to my appointment: “Housewife Superspy,” read one headline.

MI6 still finds the myth useful as a recruiting tool. Its website promises a career which, “like Bond’s,” will be in the service of the country. But the myth can be harmful. The long-running conspiracy theory that MI6 murdered Princess Diana on the orders of Prince Philip surely has its roots in Bond.

My personal response has been to create, in my own series of novels, the antithesis of James Bond: Liz Carlyle, a female MI5 officer, who uses her intellect, intuition and professional skills to defeat today's formidable security threats.

What if Carlyle were to meet Bond? She would surely see the spy who believed women were “for recreation”, “On a job, they got in the way and fogged things up with sex and hurt feelings”, as no more than an anachronistic old duffer.
Spy Carlyle was introduced in At Risk (2004). Of that novel, London critic Barry Forshaw opined:
At Risk appears to be partly autobiographical--a novel with a female intelligence officer as its heroine will be construed that way--but it wouldn’t be enough to carry an indifferently written book--and this is anything but that. In a plot that mixes East End gangsters, hierarchy and the role of women in government organisations, the central theme here is terrorism. Rimington clearly sees this as the major threat to homeland security in this day and age. Liz Carlisle is a very promising character--and the fact that a series is pending is welcome news.
Rimington’s sequel was Secret Asset (2005), about which Peter Millar wrote in the London Times:
Secret Asset is Stella Rimington’s second novel and again features her plucky and perhaps at least semi-autobiographical heroine Liz Carlyle, who would fit well into any Spooks scenario.

Her worst nightmares about running an agent--especially when that agent is taking risks for the sake of his conscience and country against the mood of his community--are realised when a student informing on Islamic militants is murdered.

He had been pointing the finger at a group of terrorists plotting a public outrage: 7/7 is not mentioned but it is part of the landscape.

To her horror, Liz is taken off the case, not just for fear of emotional over-reaction but because there is a more important job: tracking down a sleeper infiltrated into the security service decades earlier by the IRA and no less worrying because he may still be “asleep”.

In the time-honoured fashion of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Liz draws up a list of five who meet the entry timeframe criteria, and starts “taking the backbearings”.
Rimington’s third Liz Carlyle adventure, Illegal Action, followed in 2007. Once again, it explored contemporary themes, this time with the return of cold warriors. As her publisher explained:
Liz Carlyle has been transferred to Counter-Espionage, along with her research sidekick Peggy Kingsolving. Once the hub of MI5 operations, the department has been reduced in size since the end of the Cold War, and priority within the service is on counter-terrorism. Yet there is plenty for Liz to do. In fact, there are more spies operating in London today than during the height of East-West hostilities. This includes Russian spies, who continue to operate in number. What’s changed is their targets--now they spy on the international financial community that has made London its base in the last twenty years, as well as on the wealthy influential Russian ‘oligarchs’, many of whom have also come to London to live. Liz learns of a Russian government plot to ‘silence’ one of these oligarchs, Nikita Brunovsky, who is an increasingly vocal opponent of the Putin regime. How he is to be kept quiet is unclear, but since the Foreign Office dread any kind of incident, Liz is assigned to keep it from happening. Almost simultaneously, Liz and Peggy also learn of the presence of an Illegal Support officer in London, one Vladimir Rykov, who is putatively attached to the Russian embassy.

An Illegal is someone who operates (often for many years) under a completely fabricated identity--and Rykov, it seem[s], has been sent to London to help an Illegal now based there. To protect Brunovsky from his Kremlin foes, Liz goes undercover and joins the oligarch’s retinue. As she tries to determine who around the Russian might be willing to betray him, she has to consider too whether this traitor may not also be the Illegal she and Peggy are seeking.
After those three successful novels, Rimington suddenly defected last year to rival Quercus. As she was quoted in The Rap Sheet: “I’ve been very happy at Hutchinson, but Quercus is a young, energetic company, and I feel it will be exciting to be part of their adventure.”

The initial result of that defection is Dead Line, the fourth Liz Carlyle adventure, launched this month in London (sorry, there’s no U.S. release date yet). It was to the launch party for Dead Line that Quercus invited me recently. Due to security concerns, guests were informed of the venue only on the morning before the party. And befitting the novel’s author, Quercus publicity director Lucy Ramsey reserved a private room at the exclusive London club Wiltons in Jermyn Street for the celebration.

As I entered Wiltons, I spotted three MI5 agents, who were secreted in the restaurant area. One of the agents I recognized straight away: he’d also been lurking at the launch of Charles Cumming’s latest novel, Typhoon, earlier this year. He smiled my way--but also face-checked me, and then spoke discretely into his shirt collar. I wasn’t tagged as a troublemaker.

Among the small group of guests at this fête were critics Mike Stotter, Chris Simmons, Jake Kerridge, Ayo Onatade, and Barry Forshaw, the editor of Crime Time. Lucy Ramsey passed me a proof copy of Dead Line, a limited-number edition of 50 specially commissioned by Quercus for reviewers. Inside was a press release for Rimington’s new book, relating the bones of the story’s plot:
MI5 Intelligence Officer Liz Carlyle is summoned to a meeting with her boss Charles Wetherby, head of the Service’s Counter-Espionage Branch. His counterpart over at MI6 has received alarming intelligence from a high-placed Syrian source. A Middle East peace conference is planned to take place at Gleneagles in Scotland and several heads of state will attend. The Syrians have learned that two individuals are mounting an operation to disrupt the peace conference in a way designed to be spectacular, laying the blame at Syria’s door.

The source claims that Syrian Intelligence will act against the pair, presumably by killing them. No one knows who they are or what they are planning to do. Are they working together? Who is controlling them? Or is the whole story a carefully laid trail of misinformation? It is Liz’s job to find out. But, as she discovers, the threat is far greater than she or anyone else could have imagined. The future of the whole of the Middle East is at stake and the conference Dead Line is drawing ever closer.
Being a fan of the James Bond films, I was curious to meet the woman on whom “M” had allegedly been based. And I didn’t have to wait long at all for Ramsey to introduce us. Rimington graciously allowed me to take a few photographs, and she inscribed my copy of Dead Line as we chatted. She told me that she was having tremendous fun in her public speaking engagements, and in writing the Liz Carlyle yarns. I asked her if there was much of herself in the younger Carlyle. She smiled and said, “It’s really up to the reader to decide.” Judi Dench herself couldn’t have uttered that line more coyly, or with more intrigue, believe me.

It wasn’t long before Quercus’ chairman, the legendary publisher Anthony Cheetham, welcomed us all to Wiltons, and then spoke about how delighted he is that Rimington has joined his writers’ stable. He explained that as much as he enjoyed her fourth Carlyle adventure, he also appreciated Dame Stella’s achievements in ensuring the security of Britain, a statement greeted with a round of applause. Then Rimington took center stage. After thanking Cheetham for his kind words, she told us that as much as she had enjoyed her time with MI5, she considered her novel writing a perfect second career.

Afterward, it was time to mingle and grab a few canapés as waiters bearing trays passed nearby. In addition to partaking of the usual chit-chat with my fellow reviewers, I managed to spend a good bit of time with Mark Smith, the managing director of Quercus Publishing. I thanked him for sending along a very early proof of The Girl Who Played with Fire, the second installment in the late Stieg Larsson “Millennium Trilogy.” I had of course been blown away by Larsson’s first novel, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (which recently won ITV3’s International Author of the Year Award). And I was then already deep into reading its sequel, a novel whose storytelling style I found mesmerizing. (British readers can find this out for themselves, when The Girl Who Played with Fire is released in the UK in January.)

Between Stella Rimington and Stieg Larsson, Quercus has certainly come a long way in the publishing world very quickly. Some of the bigger houses might benefit from following its example, at least as far as their book choices go.

1 comment:

Jack Getze said...

Fun read over my coffee this morning, Mr. K. Thanks.