Photo of Stella Rimington, former head of MI-5. From BBC web site.
September 26, 2012

The Geneva Trap

I had some free time one day while in London, and wandered into the Heywood Hill bookstore on Curzon St. in Mayfair. I'd gotten a notice that Oxford University Press had a copy of Finnegan's Wake available, but Amazon wasn't selling a copy directly, so i decided that rather than order from someone else I would pick up a copy in England. That sounds terribly pretentious, as if I were flying to England to buy a $10 book. It's not meant that way. We'd been planning the trip for months, so it was just a question of finding a bookstore.

The staff was very nice, and took my order. Two days later they sent me an e-mail that the book had arrived, and they sent a recommendation for another book, a thriller by Ian McEwan. They didn't have the McEwan book, but I enquired about Stella Rimington.

Rimington was with MI-5, the British branch of military intelligence that deals with domestic matters, from 1968 until 1996. She rose to become the first female Director General (DG) of MI-5, and the first who was publicly known and seen.

In her retirement she wrote an autobiography, and a number of novels that feature Liz Carlyle, an MI-5 operative. Geneva Trap is the latest in the series, and not yet available in the States.

The plot centers around a message from a Russian agent that he will speak only to Liz Carlyle. He reveals the presence of a mole in a joint US-British program, and the hunt for the mole leads Liz to Geneva, Marseilles, and other spots. She also becomes involved in a matter involving her mother, and the daughter of her mother's lover, who is involved with an anarchist group. Both plots converge in Marseilles.

Readers who are familiar with Eric Ambler or Ian Fleming may have certain expectations. Both Ambler and Fleming portray heroes who are hard to kill, and who usually manage to escape from their desperate predicaments. In Rimington's case both her male and female heroes get involved in scrapes from which they are rescued by others, rather than through their own fearless initiative. This is more realistic, but also less romantic, and less inspiring.

Is the book worth reading? I'd start with the first in the series At Risk, before moving on to the later ones.