Sunday, July 24, 2011

Professional, Polished Espionage: RIP TIDE by Stella Rimington

US cover
When the former director general of MI5 writes another Liz Carlyle novel, who can resist picking it up for a good summer read? And, as I've mentioned already, RIP TIDE offers opportunities to enjoy the differences between British and American publishing, as the UK version came out last week, and the American one is scheduled for August 30 release. Here, again, are the two jacket designs -- and now, a look at what Rimington is doing with this volume.

MI5 intelligence officer Liz Carlyle is well connected. She has to be. Informants, teammates who are loyal to her, multiple connections among the other intelligence services likely to work with her -- these all help get the job done. For the first time in a while, Liz is feeling almost settled in a comfortable relationship, too, with a French international agent who's got about the same amount of responsibility and outreach as Liz -- meaning that it's easy to balance their careful agreement of "no details" in terms of work discussions.

Then, gently tilting things off balance, Martin Seurat asks Liz to consider moving to France, because he misses her when they can't see each other for, say, a month of busy operations. How is Liz is supposed to think that through when international crises are demanding her attention? That's OK -- Rimington doesn't push the romance beyond the frame of the action, as the demands for intelligence and action multiply in Liz's work life.

Is it religion that's pushing international violence, and is that why two members of a radical Muslim group drag Liz into an alley, threatening at a level well beyond a mere questioning? Or is it money and power, leaking through the plans of an otherwise inoffensive Athens-based aid organization -- and somehow connecting with both terrorism and piracy?
'Do you think the French have really caught a Brit among a gang of African pirates?' said Peggy, pushing her glasses higher on her nose as she gazed at her computer screen. 'I bet it's just a stolen license that's found its way out there and that the guy turns out to be another Somali.'
'I'm not so sure,' said Liz. 'Apparently the French Captain reported there was something odd about him -- he wasn't really one of the gang. ... He seems to understand English, though he's hardly said anything.' ... And overnight Peggy had managed to assemble a few facts about Amir Khan. ... So Liz was  trying to keep an open mind, though she was curious about what mixture of motives, inducements, or grievances might have led young Khan, if indeed it was he, to the Indian Ocean, to enter the hijacking business that she had previously believed to be the preserve of Somalis.
Rimington spins a neat set of interwoven subplots, threats, and violent interludes, brisk and well paced. I enjoyed the book, although there were moments when the author's agenda seemed designed to "teach" the issues of the day, rather than drive the story. The good guys are a bit more tolerant than the bad ones; passions are one-dimensional; "mistakes are made" with only a few characters being intentionally deceptive. Emotions, other than concern about being beaten or killed, stay tame and simple.

On the other hand, I enjoyed what Rimington chose to show of the "office politics" of government-sponsored spying. Her playing off of women versus men rings true, along with the costly choices that have to be made from day to day.

UK cover
Summing up, I'd say Rimington hasn't put a lot of her beliefs and passions into RIP TIDE -- but she's loaded it with the more believable tracks of her own experience. As the first female director general for MI5, she knows the terrain of gender wars well, but she doesn't try to blame results (or the lack of them) on these conflicts. Liz Carlyle may not be the most exciting spy to cross our paths, but she may well be one of the sanest ones. And that, as a plot and character device, is actually quite intriguing. I look forward to the (clearly planned) sequel.

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