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Thriller writer Stella Rimington

Readersvoice.com aims to collect a few good reading tips. For this issue, I went along to see Stella Rimington give a talk at the Ithaca Auditorium at the Brisbane City Hall on March 10. Stella Rimington was the Director-General of MI5, Britain's security service, from 1992-96, but she had always planned on writing thrillers. As you might expect, she was fond of the thriller genre, and she mentioned a few of her favorites during the talk she gave.

At a recent talk at the Brisbane City Hall, Stella Rimington said she was having Cassandra-type experiences: some of the plots she’d dreamt up in her novels were happening in real life. This predeliction for prognostication was probably a skill she developed while working for MI5, the UK’s security service, for 27 years. When working in the spy biz, I suppose you’d have to try to keep one step ahead of miscreants, second guessing what terrorists might do next.
She cited a couple of examples of her plots coming true. She said a thriller she was currently working on, her fifth, involving an offshoot of the IRA and its activities, was echoed in real life when just such an IRA offshoot exploded a bomb.

And in her third novel, Illegal Action (2007), she wrote about Russian oligarchs moving to London after the collapse of the Soviet Union. She imagined KGB spies watching them in case they criticised Putin.

Her character MI5 agent Liz Carlyle, who has been transferred to counter-espionage in MI5: a division that had its heyday during the Cold War, uncovers a plot to silence one of Putin’s critics, Nikita Brunovsky.

Then, while Ms Rimington was writing the book, Alexander Litvinenko was killed by the KGB in London; he had criticized Putin, in one book accusing him of ordering the assassination of a Russian journalist. Although, she said: “My plot is slightly mundane in comparison with this high drama.”

Stella Rimington’s books offer a good idea of how modern security agencies go about their work. They feature the meetings co-ordinating various branches of the security service on some operation, and the personal skills: how agents manage contacts, and how they interview informants, observing body language and keeping them on track in conversations so that they give the information the agent wants.

Stella Remington gave an interesting talk about her writing and her MI5 days, at the Ithaca Auditorium at the Brisbane City Hall on March 10. She joined the UK Security Service (MI5) in 1965, and was appointed the first female Director General of MI5 in 1992: the first Director General whose identity was announced. She retired in 1996.

Later she became a non-executive director of Marks and Spencer. Then she started pursuing a long-held dream to write thrillers. She started by writing her autobiography Open Secret: the autobiography of the former Director-General of MI5 (2001). This caused some controversy at the time.

Some argued it was good for educating people about the intelligence services; others suggested secret services should be just that.

But then she pursued her long-held ambition to write thrillers. She has written four thrillers featuring her lead character Liz Carlyle: At Risk (2004), Secret Asset (2006), Illegal Action (2007), and Deadline (2008). She is writing a fifth at the moment.

Ms Rimington had that clipped English accent and stiff upper lip kind of English style about her. When the City Hall clock chimed, it felt like a black-and-white movie set in London during the Blitz.

She talked about how she was recruited into MI5 after being in India for two years, where she had been a diplomat’s wife in Delhi, organising coffee mornings, for example. It happened at a cocktail party, where a man who was head of a small MI5 office in the Delhi High Commission (British) tapped her on the shoulder and offered her a job as a typist in MI5. Nowadays people applied to MI5 via their website, she said, but MI5 used to pick you.

When Ms Rimington and her husband returned to London in 1969, she applied for a permanent position in MI5. This started a long career in espionage, and she ended up becoming the Director-General of MI5 before turning to writing.

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