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Thriller writer Stella Rimington talks about her books.

Thriller writer Stella Rimington mentions a few of her favorite authors from the thriller and mystery genres...

Among incidents from her career, Ms Rimington mentioned how she once had to go to Russia in December 1991, leading a team to meet the KGB in Moscow. The aim of the trip was to teach the Russian spy service how to operate in a democracy. She said they didn’t seem that open to changing their methods.

One point about her life as a spy, was that she could never tell people what she did for a living, so a lot of social interaction was based on a lie. She said when she eventually left MI5 she could tell friends what she had really done for a living. Most of them understood why she had to lie when it was explained to them.

At one dinner party a Russian gentleman kept staring at her. Eventually he said: This woman knows the names of all my mistresses.

Eventually she fulfilled a long-held dream to become a writer, and started with an autobiography. It had to be vetted by MI5 before it could go to print, and its imminent release caused a lot of tension in the UK.

Then she wrote her first thriller, At Risk. Her novels follow the life and adventures of Liz Carlyle, a mid-30s, ambitious MI5 officer.

Ms Rimington described her as feisty, and with the intuition needed to get to the bottom of a case. Liz also didn’t like being patronised by men. “She has some of my qualities,” Ms Rimington said.

I would say that Liz Carlyle isn’t without faults, however. But no-one’s perfect.

Ms Rimington said that in At Risk, Liz Carlyle has a source, codenamed Marzipan, who has information about people coming to the UK with an Islamic terrorist plot in mind. As do MI5 officers typically, Liz tries to put this information together with other bits of the jigsaw so MI5 can take action. Ms Rimington said the difficulty was deciding when to take action: if you moved too late, there could be a terrorist attack, but if you moved too early, you mightn’t have enough information for a prosecution. This statement had some resonance in Australia.

She said spies didn’t suffer psychological problems from the duplicity, for want of a better word, of spying. She said their selection, training, and monitoring ensured that this rarely happened.

Writing thrillers was always her major ambition she said, and now she was working on her fifth. To this day, her books have to be checked by MI5 to make sure they don’t compromise any operations: she had to change the name of a pub in one book because it was still used by MI5. (No doubt important research is going on there.)

As one might expect, Ms Rimington was fond of thrillers, and she said she’d always been a thriller reader. She mentioned some of her favorite thriller authors, like Margery Allingham, who wrote mysteries from the 1930s to the 1960s. Titles include Cargo of Eagles (1968), and the book of novellas No Love Lost (1954). Other favorite authors included Dorothy Sayers, author of books like Gaudy Night, which gets a mention in Secret Asset as a book Liz Carlyle had read. Dorothy Sayers is best known for her mystery stories featuring Lord Peter Wimsey, aristocrat and amateur sleuth.

She said she also liked John Le Carre, particularly his cold war novels which she said were very realistic. These include Smiley’s People and The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.

She also liked Donna Leon, an American author of a series of crime novels set in Venice, like The Anonymous Venetian (1994), especially for her creation of place and atmosphere.

She also liked Our Man in Havanna by Graham Greene. Graham Greene was known for developing the inner life of his spy characters, but he could also write a good plot. Our Man in Havanna is one of the novels he modestly classified as an “entertainment”.

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