- - Friday, September 12, 2014

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

CLOSE CALL: A LIZ CARLYLE NOVEL
By Stella Rimington
Bloomsbury, $27, 352 pages

Counterterrorism is the espionage theme of the day, and Stella Rimington draws on years of experience as chief of Britain’s MI5 in this tightly drawn thriller.

Once again, her lead character is Liz Carlyle, who heads the counterterrorism unit in the British security service and who is obviously the prototype of the author in her career. She is tough, but she appears subject to the kind of human frailties that always seemed shadowy in the characters of John le Carre. His people were subtly mannered and impassive to the point that the reader often had to dissect the dialogue between the speakers. There is no crossword-puzzle quality to the Rimington cast of characters, although they are well-drawn.

The book’s plot illustrates what Ms. Rimington learned from decades in the security service. In a world haunted by terrorism and deception, she makes good use of what she learned in what had to be a taxing career. She blends the kind of facts that now seem to explode almost daily around the world with imaginative but realistic fiction and sharpens the tension by underlining that the worst kind of menace is that which comes from within.

A threat from an arms dealer in Yemen becomes a deadly link to a framework that includes human-trafficking and drug-dealing as well as the domestic terrorism that even powerful nations have come to recognize and fear. Ms. Rimington knows her spycraft well enough to create a gruesome scenario of a situation involving the selling of smuggled weapons to both sides in defiance of a United Nations embargo, with the usual disregard for casualties. What makes this even more alarming is that a connection in the United Kingdom is manipulating and profiting from providing the kind of information that could be useful to al Qaeda extremists seeking to prepare their power base for another attack in Britain. What proves to be the worst of news for Liz Carlyle is that the real traitor has been known to her for many years, and now she must live with the consequences of ignoring suspicions.

The author does a decisive job of defining the personalities and problems of the English police officer who has an intimate place in Carlyle’s past, and those of Geoffrey Fane, an agent with an unrequited affection for Carlyle, especially when she faces an unexpected tragedy in her personal life. Hers is a life split between the work that totally absorbs her and a deep desire for a more conventional romantic life with a French agent. What she remains basically undecided about is real commitment that inevitably would interfere with what she does for a living, which is as demanding and unpredictable as a job can be. The impression is left that in the end, Liz may succumb to the lure of her work.

Emerging as a potentially major figure in a future Carlyle saga is a CIA agent who becomes deeply entangled in the lethal intricacies of the international illegal arms trade. When it is discovered that the key to the arms dealing lies in Western Europe, Carlyle and her colleagues launch a dangerous manhunt that becomes costly in lives as well as in politics and explores the deep rivalries between the British agents and their CIA counterparts based in London. It makes it all the more difficult for Carlyle that she has strong suspicions about the identity of the man who is the source for the European arms dealer. Her villains tend to be clear, making them more interesting than those with less obvious motives, in which judgment can be colored by emotion.

An unexpected promotion bestowed on the CIA agent in London raises the question of how Liz Carlyle will handle the next tangles of her work.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.

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