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For Former MI5 Head, Real Life Inspires Spy Novels

For Stella Rimington, the author of Illegal Action, secret intelligence is second nature; for nearly 30 years, she worked for MI5, Britain's domestic intelligence agency, rising through the ranks to become the first woman appointed director general.

Now retired from spy work, Rimington has created Liz Carlyle, a fictional intelligence officer in her mid 30s who works for MI5. Liz is a cool customer, who brings a combination of analytical intelligence and female intuition to a profession dominated by men. If this sounds familiar, it's because, as the author admits, some of her fiction is inspired by reality.

"When I first joined MI5, it was a male-dominated world," says Rimington. "I take some pleasure, I must say, in putting things in Liz's mouth that I might quite have liked to have said — but probably never did — when I was in her position."

Rimington says that when she joined MI5, women were "only regarded as suitable to do the paperwork."

"We had to fight quite hard to be let into the shop. And then gradually the world changed," she remembers. "I was always determined that I wanted to do the next job up, and that was how I dealt with it."

Illegal Action is Rimington's third book featuring Liz Carlyle. The story revolves around a scheme by the Russian government to silence a wealthy oligarch living in London. It's a plot that could have been ripped from the headlines; when Rimington was working on the book, Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB officer and dissident living in London, was murdered after someone poisoned his tea — a crime that Litvinenko suspected his former KGB colleagues of committing.

"I felt that fact had caught up with ficiton when that happened," Rimington says of Litvinenko's poisoning.

The collision of fact and fiction is something that Rimington is well aware of — especially when it comes to Great Britian's Official Secrets Act.

"I still have to submit my fiction for clearance by my former colleagues to make sure that I haven't inadvertently revealed something damaging," she says, adding that she avoids problems by focusing her books on the interplay of people rather than the technical details of the spy business.

A notable aspect of Britain's intelligence efforts that Rimington does reveal in her novel is the close cooperation between local police and the intelligence agencies — something that doesn't aways happen in the U.S.

"It is an accurate representation of how things go on in the U.K.," says Rimington. "Both our foreign intelligence service, MI6, and MI5 — which is the domestic service — and the police all work extremely closely together. And now they have a sort of joint unit working together so that the intelligence can be shared, and action on the street can be taken."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Deborah Amos covers the Middle East for NPR News. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.