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Brainy Brit Bombs

Novel by former spymaster falls flat


Stella Rimington, retired director general of Britain's MI5 intelligence bureau, has written At Risk, a highly cerebral novel dealing with counter-terrorism efforts in post-9/11 Great Britain. Choosing to forgo the cloak and dagger James Bond format in order to explore the analytical thought processes of MI5 work must have seemed like a good idea at the time. Unfortunately, Rimington ultimately disappoints in her efforts at creating a cutting edge spy novel.

At Risk charts the progress of MI5 agent Liz Carlyle through a case dealing with terrorism, people smuggling, and murder. Liz must find the terrorists and their intended target before they kill again. The story is solid, and, overall, it works mechanically as a tension-based plot. Unfortunately, the tight writing and professional progression leave the reader with no sense of surprise. Every step is expected, every plot twist only slightly revealing.

One would expect a certain unique authority to be lent to a novel simply because the writer is an official in her field. However, Rimington's attention to her characters' clothing far outstrips any background information the reader receives on work in the MI5 sector. The first 10 chapters of the novel depend on building the characters — not out of their actions or statements, but by naming where their clothes were purchased. In addition, instead of working within her area of expertise, the writer spends much of her passages describing the natural landscape of England's coastal areas. Though sometimes acute, there is nothing particularly original in these descriptions and the reader is left with the overall sentiment that Britain is a cold, rainy, gray place that is generally foreboding and muddy.

Another element which seems to evade Rimington is the use of extended metaphor and archetypes. Most great novels employ one or the other to heighten the depth of writing, and ultimately color the story. At Risk takes no such risk, instead giving the story plainly to the reader, without much noticeable creativity. Needless to say, this oversight leaves the characters and plot a bit thin, where they otherwise could have flowered into reasonably realistic figures.

Rimington's depiction of the terrorists is the one place within the novel that stands out. The duo of a misled Englishwoman and an angry Pakistani is rendered with utmost attention. Though their page time is half of what Liz Carlyle consumes, these two trap the interest of the reader. Largely because they are, in effect, loaded guns, Jean and Faraj have a certain pull the rest of the novel lacks. They steer clear of the cliché quips and comebacks that Rimington generously doles out to her other characters, making their exchanges more original. They are also described much more sympathetically than one would imagine, as Rimington allows the pair more flexibility than the straitjacketed stock characters she pulled for the investigative team. In the end, I found myself actually favoring the terrorists to any of the investigative troops, no doubt not what Rimington had in mind.

Liz Carlyle and the slew of other investigative workers all suffer from an extreme lack of internal monologue and observation. They never lend their views to the novel's description, leaving full control to the author at all times. They also never express emotions or thoughts that waver from their directive within the plot. Every detail mentioned outside of their jobs seems randomly plugged in, as if the author's editor told her, "Honey, you've got to give your characters a life, a hobby." Ranging from the haranguing mother to an affair with a married man, Liz's outside life seems pulled from a bad soap opera. Her character doesn't, even for a second, step free of her proscribed role as a CIA-type agent, which leaves much to be desired in her character.

Rimington writes with a certain English tenor; that is, her language has the constraint and professionalism one often expects from a British writer. She shows obvious ability for the written page, and exercises great control throughout the novel, but she is so relentlessly tactful in her writing, she inevitably takes no risks whatsoever with her work — which makes for an oddly flat, functional read, particularly for a book titled At Risk.

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