Thursday, 13 September 2012

Book review: Rip Tide, Stella Rimington (2011)

Yesterday's announcement of an arrest and seizures of guns and data from people associated with the al Furqan centre and bookshop in suburban Melbourne remind us of the continuing danger posed by home grown terrorists. In fact, the head of ASIO prefigured this action a week or so ago when he said publicly that domestic terror was still a reality in Australia. No doubt there are similar investigations underway in other countries. For her part, former MI5 head and novelist Stella Rimington thinks that this remains a problem for law enforcement in the UK because the conspiracy in Rip Tide (2011) centres on a mosque in Birmingham where young men of Pakistani extraction are radicalised and sent overseas to be trained for violent jihad. And in her 2006 novel Secret Asset an MI5 mole recruits and guides a cell of domestic terrorists who attempt to carry out an attack in Oxford.

In Rip Tide, we meet up again with Liz Carlyle, an MI5 agent runner whose job is very much her life and who teams up once more with the efficient researcher Peggy Kinsolving in order to crack the secret of how a young man with Pakistani parents came to find himself among the crew of a pirate skiff that has attacked a container ship transporting aid supplies from Greece to Kenya. Liz travels to Paris to interview Amir Khan but gets nowhere. In the UK, MI5 are alerted to unusual goings-on in a Birmingham mosque by Boatman, an agent they have run for some time. And in Greece at the headquarters of the aid shipping business USCO there are suspicions that only the more valuable cargoes of aid are being targeted by the pirates operating off Somalia. Liz must tie all these strands together.

The book offers curious readers plenty of standard spook tradecraft but few clues. There are some violent incidents, particularly when Maria Galanos, an MI6 agent living in Greece, who is tasked with infiltrating USCO and watching for clues as to who is leaking information to the pirates, is killed in her apartment. Boatman also suffers when he is pushed off the back of a bus in Birmingham, and sustains injuries. While these incidents may be necessary for the forward movement of the plot they do not add much to the satisfaction the reader gleans from the book; violence in a spy novel should be the very last place of resort for the author. Especially in the case of Maria, also, the reader can see the danger coming from a mile away, as the unhappy woman walks home from a night out in a club spent with two girls from the office. If anything, such episodes expose a weakness in Rimington's style, which is otherwise inscrutable and masterful. From the plot perspective, such a death might not be the best method to use, for Maria's demise alerts MI5 to the fact that her cover is blown. There might have been a better way to handle this element of the plot.

Relations between the UK and the US spy agencies are canvassed in the book, too. Because the USCO employee who alerted MI6 to his suspicions, Mitchell Berger, is a former employee of the CIA, that organisation becomes involved in the case, too, in the form of Andy Bokus. Bokus and Geoffrey Fane, the head of MI6 who has a crush on Liz, spar with each other over which country should lead an operation to capture the pirates, and Bokus resents Fane's implication that the Americans tend to go into such operations with too much firepower and too little tact. In the meeting, it is Liz's current squeeze, the Frenchman Martin Seurat, who breaks the impasse by suggesting that a French Navy frigate should be the contact vessel. But in the end it is careful work by operatives like Liz and Peggy who discover the links between the Birmingham mosque and USCO, and who uncover the identity of the mole inside USCO. But there is still one more dastardly plot to tease out involving a radicalised youth, a bomb and a pop concert.

As usual, Rimington uses very short chapters to deliver the narrative. The puzzle is suitably complex and of course it is current, inasmuch as she tends to write stories that have some real-world connection. There is not much use of metaphor and few descriptive passages; Rimington prefers to focus on the kinds of information about people that might be found in a case file: age, background, career, appearance, clothes, vehicle used, etcetera. As is her wont Rimington here again takes a long hard look at the realities of life in the agency for female spies like Liz. What kind of choices does she have to make in order to build her career? What problems are specific to the lives of women in the business? What kind of personal life is possible for a female spy, and how does she negotiate between its demands and the demands of her career? In this way, Rimington succeeds in humanising Liz, and making her situation universal in this sense, bringing her closer to us. The result is a better book, and this one is certainly good.

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