Cover image of "Illegal Action" by Stella Rimington

In Illegal Action, the third novel in the Liz Carlyle series by Dame Stella Rimington, Liz is transferred from her prestigious post in Counter-Terrorism to a new job in the Russian section of Counter-Espionage. The section is widely considered a backwater in MI5, but ts acting director feels differently. Brian Ackers is an old hand from the Cold War who sees little difference between the KGB of the 1980s and the SVR of the 2000s. He’s rigid and often unreasonable. However, as a more credible source makes clear to Liz, “There are more foreign intelligence officers in London now than before the fall of the Berlin Wall.”

Liz is unhappy working for Ackers. To make matters worse for her, the bureaucrat in the Foreign Office who has veto power over Counter-Espionage is if anything more rigid than Ackers and understands little of what the job requires. When intelligence reports indicate that the Russians have dispatched an “illegal” to Britain for what is undoubtedly to be a major operation, Liz is assigned to a potentially dangerous undercover role. She gets little help from Ackers and none from the Foreign Office. Surprisingly, though, her old nemesis, Geoffrey Fane of MI6, proves to be supportive.

Illegal Action (Liz Carlyle #3) by Stella Rimington ★★★★☆

Four months after Liz has moved to Counter-Espionage, intelligence gleaned by MI6 makes clear that the target of the illegal’s operation is one of the thirty-odd Russian oligarchs now living in London. Which one? That’s impossible to know. But there are tantalizing hints that it’s a former KGB officer, now a billionaire many times over, named Nikita Brunovsky. Though it seems unlikely, MI5 and MI6 suspect that the operation is to be a repeat of the Alexander Litvinenko assassination some years earlier, when a fugitive former KGB officer was murdered by polonium. Ackers has assigned Liz to infiltrate Brunovsky’s household, joining the retinue of shady and sycophantic characters who surround him.

The plot that unfolds involves long-lost paintings by a 20th-century Russian artist named Pashko which Brunovsky is determined to acquire. His passion for the artist’s work gives Liz an entree into his household following a week-long cram course with an aging Russian emigre art historian at Cambridge. As an “art student” researching Pashko’s work, she is easily able to join the billionaire’s retinue. With difficulty, she seems able even to fool the art experts Brunovsky has retained.

The action shifts from Brunovsky’s palatial home to an art auction house and eventually to Ireland, while Liz lives undercover in an MI5 safe house, spending much of her time in the billionaire’s presence. A violent confrontation seems inevitable if in fact the intelligence is accurate and MI5 has identified the right target among the olhgarchs. However, Stella Rimington’s espionage tales aren’t blood-soaked shoot-em-ups like so many other novels in the genre. The circumstances and characters in Illegal Action are entirely credible, and the spycraft she describes is authoritative, as Dame Stella served as an officer in MI5 for three decades, finishing her career as the agency’s first female Director General.

This book is featured on my post, Dame Stella Rimington’s Liz Carlyle series of top-notch espionage novels.

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