There always has been a market for thriller writers who have experienced what they are writing about, whether it's cops, soldiers, spies — or even crooks.
The results vary from great art (Joseph Wambaugh) to very good novels (Robert Daley) to authentic but formulaic yarns (Stephen Coontz or Dale Brown) to downright awful, such as "The Good Guys," the new book by FBI agent Joe Pistone and former mobster Bill Bonanno.
So when the first woman to ever head the British counter-intelligence agency MI-5 decides to write a novel, she's probably going to get a publisher almost no matter what she turns in. But Stella Rimington's debut, "At Risk" is so good, it probably would have found a willing publisher even if she had been an insurance agent (a la Tom Clancy) instead of a secret one.
Given her resume, it might be expected that Rimington would focus her novel on a heroine who has had to prove herself in a male world. But she brilliantly takes that premise a leap farther.
If Liz Carlyle, an agent-runner in MI-5's Joint Counter-Terrorism Group, thinks she has had to swim upstream in her world of condescending male co-workers, consider the case of Lucy Wharmby, who is making her way in the chauvinist world of Islamo-fascist terror.
The troubled child of wealthy liberal parents, Lucy stopped being an embarrassment when she discovered religion. It would be politically incorrect — and far too judgmental — for them to worry about the fact that Lucy's new-found faith is Islam. Even if her parents noted the violent rhetoric of her particular imams, they would write it off as a phase and argue that all religions are a little irrational, aren't they?
Lucy's task as a self-sacrificial "Child of Heaven" is to guide a terrorist to his target in the middle of England, and she is eager to prove herself worthy of the honor. But for all her efforts to suppress the bourgeois values of the culture she rejected, Lucy finds that the idea of killing the innocent is easier to be enthusiastic about while sitting in a training camp abroad than while looking someone in the eye —particularly after meeting (and liking) one of the proposed victims.
MI-5 has picked up "chatter" that a sleeper agent has been activated in Britain for an operation against a specific target. When a fisherman involved in immigrant smuggling is killed with a silenced weapon that fires armor-piercing Russian ammo, Liz feels she has the spot to focus her investigation.
But even in a country where there is a central agency to deal with counter-intelligence, it's still not a sure thing that all the puzzle pieces will be noticed or assembled correctly in time.
Rimington's very assured debut is flawless and reminiscent of Gerald Seymour, my favorite writer of espionage of the 1970s and '80s, who, unlike Len Deighton and John LeCarre, was able to switch smoothly from the Cold War to the age of terror and little genocidal conflicts without a hitch.
Like Seymour, Rimington is superb at making even small characters real to the reader, generating suspense at the danger that lurks around even them, rather than just treating them as cannon fodder. Both authors also effectively use younger people in their plot who bring the requisite passions and conflicts of their age, rather than the tired seasoned pros who populate most novels of the genre.
Combine that knack for character with expert plotting, insider knowledge and tautly crafted workplace tensions, and fans of intelligent thrillers will not consider their 24 bucks "At Risk" when they plunk it down.
This is a guaranteed winner — Stella Rimington has not only conquered yet another male-dominated field but also looks as if she'll be a dominant force for a long time to come.