Present Danger, By Stella Rimington

MI5 heroine delivers the thrills
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The Independent Culture

Dame Stella Rimington isn't the author to go to for a psychological critique of secret-service operatives, but for a pacy page-turner, she's a safe bet. Present Danger is the fifth of her "insider" novels to feature Liz Carlyle, a thirtysomething MI5 officer whose career success has – surprise, surprise – come at a cost to her personal life.

Present Danger opens with Carlyle pondering her relationship with her newly widowed boss, Charles Wetherby, before she's unexpectedly shipped off to Northern Ireland, where the ceasefire has brought a very temporary peace. She's reunited with three ex-colleagues – two friends and an old foe – and is getting to grips with her new role when a routine inquiry puts one of her team in mortal danger.

Rimington is particularly strong in her accounts of procedure, unsurprisingly, given her past role as head of MI5. While some might argue that the sections where she lays out the details of every mission slow the action, they add a ring of authenticity that makes Present Danger more, rather than less, exciting. Everything rattles along at a good rate, taking in London, Belfast, Paris, and a Mediterranean island.

There are a few bum notes. Of course Carlyle's bosses will have noticed the mutual attraction between her and her boss – this is MI5, not Wernham Hogg – so her musings about the subtext for her posting to Northern Ireland seem naive. Later, an officer makes a schoolgirl error over security checks which serves to drive the plot forward but seems almost comically unbelievable. Likewise, Carlyle's hit-and-miss approach to keeping her mobile phone switched on just doesn't seem likely.

The mix of characters – agents, informants, arms dealers and establishment dinosaurs – are a varied bunch, although depressingly, everyone in MI5 and its French equivalent seems to be white and middle-class. A guilty pleasure is the ongoing undercurrent of romance, and it's hard not to wonder whether Carlyle will get her man out of office hours as well as in them.

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