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Book cover for The Geneva Trap (the seventh and latest in the Liz Carlyle series of novels). Photo courtesy of Bloomsbury Publishing.

Writer Watch

Stella Rimington (Cont.)

‘Rimington displays a markedly irreverent attitude towards the mystique of the Secret Service, and particularly its misogyny.’ Independent on Sunday.


In an interview in 2009 for the 7.30 Report, Kerry O’Brien asked how attitudes in the Security Service had changed over the years.

 ‘Kerry O'Brien: Stella Rimington, you've noted in your memoir that the MI5 of today is a vastly different beast to the one that was formed in 1909. There was one particular criterion for recruitment you attributed to the founder Vernon Kell. What was it?


Stella Rimington: There were two, actually. The first one was, ‘I like my gals to have good legs,’ and the other was that a spy or a member of MI5 needs to be able to ride on horseback while simultaneously making notes on his shirt cuff. So those were his two recorded.

Kerry O'Brien: And the ‘gals having nice legs’ had nothing to do with them being spies, because I don't think it was never this his mind that they'd progress that far.

Stella Rimington: No, it wasn't. I mean, the girls – even when I joined, which was much, much later than that, of course – the girls were really limited to the desk work, and dealing with the papers, and not doing the sharp-end intelligence work.’

‘…Furthermore, she does document the huge and now sickeningly topical switch from cold-war operations to anti-terrorism.’ Sunday Times.

In the ABC’s 7.30 Report interview Kerry O’Brien asked about the KGB’s intelligence gathering operations:

Kerry O'Brien: How formidable was the KGB in real life? Because that was that Cold War ethos that you very much were caught up in for much of your time.

Stella Remington: Yes. They were an efficient, I think, an efficient and huge intelligence organisation, but perhaps not as clever – as sometimes in our worst moments we thought they were – but they did have some very good successes. And the Cambridge spies that we've already mentioned were obviously one of them.

So they were a formidable foe. And of course you've got to cast your mind back to the Cold War when we were two armed camps facing each other and, you know, gathering intelligence was very important and the prize would go if it'd ever turned to a fighting war to the side with the best intelligence.

Kerry O'Brien: There must have been some confusion within British intelligence and the other western agencies, when the Soviet Union collapsed and the Cold War fizzled to an end.

Stella Rimington: I must say it came as a surprise that it folded up so quickly, actually.’

Stella has become increasingly concerned about the way that fear of terrorism has eaten away at the civil liberties of ordinary citizens.

In an interview with the ABC’s Richard Glover she said: ‘I think it’s the responsibility of all governments and democracies to get the balance right between our civil liberties and their responsibility to look after us.

‘But the truth of the matter is that there’s no such thing as 100% safety. We’re all at risk every day, whether we cross the road and get run over by a bus or whatever it is – so there’s no way of ensuring everybody is always safe and I think politicians have a responsibility to explain that.’

‘It is easy nowadays to forget how much the face of MI5 has changed during Dame Stella Rimington’s quarter of a century in it, and how much she did to bring that change about. The fact that the Security Service now has a public face owes much to her.

Thanks both to her period as Director-General and the controversies surrounding her memoirs, she is the first intelligence chief in modern British history to become something approaching a household name… Open Secret is a very personal account, not a partly derivative memoir.’ Christopher Andrew, The Times

After some twenty-seven years working in the Security Service, Dame Stella retired in 1996 and now lives in both London and Norfolk, doing what appeals to her and writing the Liz Carlyle series of security service procedurals. She is particularly happy that she is now able to spend some quality time with her two daughters and five grandchildren.

In the 7.30 Report interview, Kerry O’Brien asked Dame Stella how her life has changed since retirement.

Kerry O'Brien: You've been out of it for a decade now. I wonder, do you miss it, or was it a great load off your shoulders?

Stella Rimington: It was both, actually. I think when you leave a job like that, you've got a combination of grief and relief, really, and the relief is now dominant, I must say, in my life, because I've done lots of other things and I'm, you know, enjoying my retirement from that.’


The Books – Non fiction

Open Secret: The Autobiography of the Former Director-General of MI5.

A Sunday Times bestseller. First published by Hutchinson in 2001, with a further preface written by Stella Rimington for the 2002 Arrow Books paperback edition reflecting on the events of September 11, 2001.

Dame Stella Rimington joined the Security Service (MI5) in 1968. She subsequently worked in all the main areas of the Service: counter-subversion, counter-espionage and counter-terrorism. Stella Rimington was appointed Director General in 1992, the first woman to ever hold the post.

Open Secret takes us inside the workings of MI5 – the heart of the security services – and provides a unique perspective on the historic changes of the second half of the twentieth century, not just in the international security field but also in the personal and political arena… How she dealt with all the problems of the job, coupled with the extra ones her own appointment brought is told here in an entertaining and page turning style – an unforgettable and powerful read which will long linger in the memory.’ Yorkshire Post.

The Books – Fiction

At Risk (2004). Debut novel featuring Liz Carlyle of MI5. An ‘invisible’ is CIA speak for the ultimate intelligence nightmare; the terrorist who, because he or she is an ethnic native of the target country, can cross its borders unchecked and move around the country unquestioned. An invisible on mainland Britain was the worst possible news. For Liz Carlyle, an MI5 intelligence officer, this report from MI6 marks the start of an operation which will test her to the limit and put her own life in jeopardy.

Secret Asset (2006). Second Carlyle novel. MI5 Intelligence Officer Liz Carlyle learns from one of her agents that suspicious meetings have been taking place at an Islamic bookshop. She feels instinctively that a terrorist cell is at work and when she reports this to Charles Wetherby, the Director of Counter Terrorism, a surveillance operation is immediately put into place. An attack seems imminent, but as her colleagues try to counter the impending terrorist strike, Wetherby receives a tip-off that a mole has been planted in one of the branches of British Intelligence and Liz must use all her skills to find out who it is.

Illegal Action (2007). Third Carlyle novel.Super-rich Russian oligarch Nikita Brunovsky openly criticises the Putin regime from what he thinks is a safe base in London. The Foreign Office is appalled to learn that the Russian Government has planned to assassinate Brunovsky and dreads any kind of incident on British soil. MI5 intelligence officer Liz Carlyle goes undercover to learn who in Brunovsky’s retinue is likely to betray him and discovers that an ‘illegal’ Russian agent has arrived in London. Working under an assumed name and caught up in the high-octane world of the oligarchs, Liz soon finds that her mission is under threat and her life in danger.

Dead Line (2008). Fourth Carlyle novel. MI5 Intelligence Officer Liz Carlyle is called to an urgent meeting with the head of the Service’s Counter-Espionage Branch. His counterpart over at MI6 has received alarming intelligence from a high-ranking Syrian source. A Middle East peace conference is planned to take place at Gleneagles in Scotland. Several heads of state will attend and the Syrians have learned that two individuals are mounting an operation to disrupt the conference in a spectacular way that will lay the blame at Syria’s door.

Present Danger (2009). Fifth Carlyle novel. When MI5 officer Liz Carlyle is posted to Northern Ireland she soon discovers that the peace process in the province is precarious. A source reports strange activity at a house on the Irish Sea owned by The Fraternity, an organization Liz suspects of being a front for renegade former IRA men. While Liz is away in Paris pursuing a French connection with her counterpart in French Intelligence, Dave Armstrong decides to take matters into his own hands. When Dave goes missing, Liz fears the worst, especially when she discovers that the obvious suspects have all also disappeared.

Rip Tide (2011). Sixth Carlyle novel. When pirates attack a cargo ship off the Somalian coast and one of them is found to be a British-born Pakistani, alarm bells start ringing at London's Thames House. MI5 Intelligence Officer Liz Carlyle is brought in to establish how and why a young British Muslim could go missing from his well-to-do family in Birmingham and end up onboard a pirate skiff in the Indian Ocean, armed with a Kalashnikov. After an undercover operative connected to the case turns up dead in the shipping office of an NGO in Athens it looks like piracy may be the least of the Service’s problems.

The Geneva Trap (2012). The seventh and latest Carlyle novel. When a Russian spy approaches MI6 with information about an imminent cyber attack on a top secret project between the UK and the USA, he refuses to talk to anyone but Liz Carlyle of MI5. At a US Air Force base in Nevada, officers watch in horror as one of their unmanned drones plummets out of the sky and panic spreads through the British and American Intelligence services. Where is the cyber attack coming from? Russia or elsewhere? In a frantic effort to prevent the Cold War from heating up again Liz and her team follow a trail from Geneva to Marseilles as they hunt for a mole inside the MOD.

And counting...


For Website Watch links to MI5, MI6, GCHQ, and other sites of interest to people writing about espionage, history, or those who are just avid spook fans, go to More Stella page below to go there.

More Stella...P.3