Cover image of "At Risk" by Dame Stella Rimington

Ex-spooks with a modicum of writing ability sometimes turn to writing spy thrillers once they’ve left the world of espionage. Rarely, though, do we see fictional treatments of the game come from anyone who retired at the very top of the game. Dame Stella Rimington is one of what must be only a handful of examples. She retired in 1996 as Director General of MI5, Britain’s counter-intelligence service, the only woman ever to have served in the post. At this writing, she has published ten novels in the Liz Carlyle series.

At Risk (2004) — High stakes in an excellent espionage thriller

Carlyle “runs agents” for MI5 and serves on the Joint Counter-Terrorist group along with representatives of MI6, the police Special Branch, GCHQ (Britain’s NSA), and, sometimes, the Home Office and the Foreign Office. In a meeting of this inter-agency group, MI6 discloses that a terrorist is about to enter the countryan “invisible” capable of blending perfectly into English society. The terrorist’s identity, and his or her intentions, are unknown. No sooner has Liz begun work on the case than she hears disturbing news. A crime boss engaged in smuggling drugs and illegal immigrants into the country is expecting a very big shipment; the boss is nervous, and the informant is terrified. Is there a connection to the terrorist on the way? Read the full review.

Secret Asset (2006) — An engrossing novel about British counter-espionage

Sohail Din, a young Pakistani-British man, has postponed entry into law school for a year to serve as an undercover source for MI5. His agent runner, Liz Carlyle, returns from leave to find that Din has reported a visit by a notorious radical Pakistani imam to the Islamist bookstore where he works. There, the sheikh met with three young British men of Pakistani origin who are suspected of radical sympathies. Suspecting an imminent terrorist attack on British soil, MI5 swings into action. As an officer in the counter-espionage department, Liz hopes to become involved in the investigation. But the Director of Counter-Terrorism, Charles Wetherby, pulls her aside for a secret assignment: determine whether one of the men or women working for MI5 is a mole. Read the full review.

Illegal Action (2007) — An engaging spy novel from former MI5 director Stella Rimington

Four months after Liz has moved from Counter-Terrorism to Counter-Espionage, intelligence gleaned by MI6 makes clear that the target of an illegal agent’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. Liz is assigned to infiltrate Brunovsky’s household, joining the retinue of shady and sycophantic characters who surround him. Read the full review.

Dead Line (2008) — Liz Carlyle stars in an outstanding British espionage novel

A high-level Middle Eastern peace conference is scheduled to take place in Scotland. The presidents of Israel, Syria, and the United States are all scheduled to attend. The conference is just weeks away when MI6 picks up a credible agent’s report that a plan is afoot to sabotage the conference. Thirty-five-year-old MI5 officer Liz Carlyle is assigned to work with MI6 to determine whether the threat is real and, if so, find out who’s behind it—and thwart it at all costs. Together with her able young aide, Peggy Kinsolving, and senior MI6 officer Geoffrey Fane, Liz sets out on an investigation that intensifies as the deadline approaches. Read the full review.

Present Danger (2009) — Do all the best spy novels come from Britain?

Search online for “women spy novelists,” and you’ll turn up a number of names. Some are well known, but not for their espionage fiction. Most of the others rarely if ever make the bestseller lists. Stella Rimington is an exception. Read the full review.

Rip Tide (2011) — Somali pirates, Al Qaeda, and home-grown terrorists in England

When a young British man turns up among a boatload of captured Somali pirates, Liz Carlyle rushes to France to interview him. Amir Khan holds a driver’s license from Birmingham. He’s of Pakistani descent and, as soon becomes clear, he had previously traveled to Pakistan at the urging of a radical cleric in his home town. Is Khan one member of a cell of England home-grown terrorists? Is he Al Qaeda? And is the connection with Somalia significant? Carlyle’s job is to uncover the truth. Read the full review.

The Geneva Trap (2012) — Former MI5 Director spins a fascinating tale of espionage

Leave it to the former head of Britain’s Security Service (MI5) to serve up a compelling tale of espionage that rockets from Geneva to London to Marseilles. In the seventh entry in her well-crafted series of spy stories featuring MI5 officer Liz Carlyle, Stella Rimington weaves a fascinating story involving not just MI5 and MI6 but also the Swiss Federal Intelligence Service, the CIA, Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), the French Directorate-General for External Security (DGSE), and the Korean National Intelligence Service (KCIA). Read the full review.

Close Call (2014) — The former MI5 director spins another great tale of espionage

Stella Rimington won’t win any prizes for writing great literature. Her Liz Carlyle series of spy novels are written in a straightforward, no-nonsense manner. The prose is unembellished. Her strength as a novelist lies instead in her skill in plotting and her intimate knowledge of espionage gained as the Director General of Britain’s MI5 in the 1990s. She knows exactly how intelligence agencies really work. And she uses that knowledge to weave tales around the issues that have preoccupied British and American intelligence for the past three decades. Read the full review.

Breaking Cover (2016) — Russian agents under cover in the UK

The CIA learns that the FSB has begun placing undercover Russian agents—”illegals”—in the West. One is in England. The agency immediately informs MI5, where Liz Carlyle heads counterespionage. With no additional information to go on, Liz is stymied. Then the CIA officer meets again with his source and learns there are two illegals in the UK, one a man, the other a woman, and that they work together. Both, he’s told, are getting close to successful penetration of MI5 and MI6. Liz’s search for the undercover agents begins. Read the full review.

The Moscow Sleepers (2018) — An interesting new twist on Russian sleeper agents in the latest Liz Carlyle novel

According to the FBI, he’s a Russian sleeper agent. Meanwhile, in Hamburg, Germany, we learn that an official in the European Union’s immigration section was placed there by the Russians. His wife is the head of a school for immigrants who are somehow tied to the man in Vermont. And another school, in rural England, has recently been bought by an unknown owner and may in some way be connected to Hamburg. Even with the assistance of her own agent in place in Moscow and the combined resources of MI6 and the CIA, Liz is in the dark in the most recent addition to the Liz Carlyle series. Read the full review.

About the author

Dame Stella Rimington (born 1935) is the former Director General of MI5, a position she held from 1992 to 1996. She was the first female in the post at MI5, and the first whose name was publicized on appointment. If you are challenged by mysterious British titles, know that the term “dame” is the equivalent the honorific “sir” that comes to men with knighthood. Rimington is a Dame Commander of the Order of the Bath, to be technical.

For a series of novels that trods much the same territory but with abundant humor, see Following Mick Herron’s clever British spies at Slough House.

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