At risk of being second-rate

At Risk by Stella Rimington

Somewhere, real Islamists are laughing. It would give too much away to say why, but trust me: if an Islamist has read this book, he’ll be in hysterics. (Do Islamists laugh?)

It doesn’t give much away to say that my point is because this book is pretty rubbish. You only have to read the opening sentence to know how weak it is. “With quiet finality, the tube train drew to a stop.” More like: “With an exasperated sigh, another unknown writer who can’t get a publisher dies.” Unpublished writers – especially those without the deal-making credentials of Ms Rimington – are advised to write an opening sentence that shakes or provokes or tickles. Ms Rimington’s opening line is as flat as Lincolnshire. And I’m not even going to waste time on the word ‘finality’. Other examples of the author’s lack of creativity with language include wrong words such as “rust-streaked” (pocked? pimpled? blistered? not streaked, surely) and plenty of superfluous words. Find the unemployable immigrant in this sentence: “And the weather, as the hours passed, got steadily worse.” If it’s over several hours, of course it’s steady. Death to adverbs!

Moving away from words, Ms Rimington’s style is often didactic and patronising. Classic telling not showing. “Large-denomination bank notes”? Because that’s not clunky! Does Ms Rimington not know which denomination? Did she forget that she has complete control over her creation? The novel is also filled with conventional debut-novel clangers. Scenes that tell us nothing about the characters in them. What does the fact that the protagonist swipes her ID card to gain entry into MI5 headquarters have to say about her? How much more could we learn about her if she had to react to her ID card not working? Is the ID card even relevant at all?! The author must do better if she is to persuade her readers to stick with her and not read one of the fifteen billion books that do not contain useless detail. Even Dickens’ infamous descriptions were worth something to the story!

And finally, of course, there is the story itself. Here is where Ms Rimington shows some originality. A terror plot inspired or planned by Al-Qaeda is not all it appears. I won’t say any more, but that’s the gist. And it’s a pretty good idea. On the other hand, when most of the book is filled with tension and grave danger and issues of national security, the real point of the plot becomes somewhat banal. At least it makes sense of the feeling one gets throughout the book that this is more Midsomer Murders than Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. I’ve no doubt that Ms Rimington is a spy who fancied writing. Le Carré, on the other hand, is a writer who spied for a bit too. That’s the difference. And the great tragedy is that Ms Rimington was bound to get a publishing deal just because the publishers could emblazon her cover with all the “former MI5 chief” crap. But writing is not her vocation. Perhaps all submissions to publishers should be made blind – one way of weeding out those whose vocation is not writing. A bitter argument, you may say, but I’d love for them to give it a go.

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