A spy like no other

Geneva Trap is the seventh novel featuring MI5 agent Liz Carlyle. Should this happen to be your first Carlyle read, you are guaranteed to be surprised, and pleasantly so. To begin with, if you’re looking out for those certain staples of the spy fiction genre — villainous Russian spies, non-stop edge-of-the-seat action and a dashing (male) hero, for instance — your search would be in vain. For another, the realism that Rimington injects into the narration, no doubt a result of her own hands-on experience in the field, gives you a feeling of being privy to something you really shouldn’t know about.

This is not to say that there are no Russians, no villains, no heroes and no compulsive page-turning action. Geneva Trap even goes so far as to flog that oft-repeated spy story motif: threat of another Cold War. It all begins when a Russian spy named Alexander Sorsky contacts the British Intelligence Service (MI6) in Switzerland with vital information about a cyber breach in a top-secret defence project. But he has a condition — he will only talk to Secret Service (MI5) agent Liz Carlyle.

Carlyle had last run into Sorsky as a student at Bristol University. A guest speaker at the university, Sorsky had captured the young Carlyle’s fascination, even though their paths had never crossed subsequently. Be that as it may, what is more pertinent is the information Sorksy has for the MI6 in the present day: that here is a mole in a highly-classified British-American defence project, known as Operation Clarity, involving unmanned drones. The mole, he insists, is not working for the Russians, but a third country, though he cannot say who.Carlyle’s boss Geoffrey Fane is understandably sceptical, especially given that Sorsky has been tantalisingly brief with the specifics.

He reluctantly brings the CIA station head in London into the picture, and investigations are put into operation to pin down the leak — if at all it exits — either at the British or the American end. Meanwhile, at a US air force base in Nevada, where Operation Clarity is being tested, officers are horrified as they witness what can, in a best case scenario, be described as a technical glitch. Amidst all this is a seemingly loose end: the mysterious death of a Swiss intelligence officer in a road accident that may not be all that it seems to.

And if all this isn’t excitement enough, the story simultaneously sidesteps into Carlyle’s personal life. The daughter of the man her mother has been seeing seems to have got herself into a sticky situation. The young woman had joined a commune in France, which now appears to be extorting money from her, putting her and her young son in danger. What’s more, there is good reason to believe that the money will go into funding terrorist activities. This prompts Carlyle to ask Martin Seurat, her boyfriend and an officer in the French intelligence service, to look into it. 

Will the various threads join up? You bet! And all leading up to a thrill-a-minute, if fairly predictable, climax. The story weaves back and forth between multiple locations, notably Geneva and London, with a few others thrown in, and there is a rich cast of characters and points of view. As a newcomer to Rimington’s novels, it is difficult to comment on whether this is true of every Carlyle novel, but the author does a great job of keeping the shifting viewpoints feeling real.

Carlyle is a likeable and credible protagonist. If she carries the burdens and pressures of being a woman in a male-dominated world, one would expect the resultant angst to form a significant motif in the narrative, but it is surprisingly absent. No doubt, Dame Rimington has delved into her own background as an MI5 officer, a successful career in which she went right to the top, serving as director-general of the Secret Service between 1992 and 1996, the first woman to do so. Her experience on the inside is perhaps also the reason that spy work is depicted as being more of plodding through and following up seemingly insignificant details at multiple ends.

Yet there is no lack of tension and suspense, as the stakes are always high. The narration moves along at a brisk clip. There are some wrong turns and some grisly details left up to one’s imagination. She might have been a successful intelligence agent, but Dame Rimington has clearly found an equally successful second vocation.

The book isn’t perfect, of course. The plot itself is pretty predictable and feels a little convenient here and there — such as, would an experienced intelligence officer leave newspapers carelessly lying around in their car? But one is reluctant to nitpick much since Geneva Trap overall leaves you feeling like a Sunday afternoon very well spent. 

The Geneva Trap
Stella Rimington
Bloomsbury2013, pp 232

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