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.
NPR logo

For Former MI5 Head, Real Life Inspires Spy Novels

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
For Former MI5 Head, Real Life Inspires Spy Novels

For Former MI5 Head, Real Life Inspires Spy Novels

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


There's an old saying that writers sometimes hear, and it's write what you know. Stella Rimington knows the real world of secret intelligence, counter-terrorism and counter-espionage. 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.

Stella Rimington is now retired from spy work, and she's turned her hand to spy fiction. She came by our New York studios to talk about her new book. It's called "Illegal Action." Stella Rimington, welcome to the program.

Ms. STELLA RIMINGTON (Author; Former Director General, MI5): Thank you.

AMOS: Let's start with your main character, Liz Carlyle. Give us a portrait of who Liz is.

Ms. RIMINGTON: Well, Liz is a mid-30s intelligence officer working in MI5, and she finds herself up against a plot coming out of Russia which is directed against one of what we call the oligarchs, the very rich Russians who are living in London in large numbers. And one of them is under threat from Moscow, and she is a very determined young lady who is anxious, always, desperate to sort of get to the meaning of the intelligence which she is working on.

She finds it quite difficult, though, because she is sometimes patronized by some of the men around the place, and she is determined that she's not going to be patronized in this way. So she fights back in a fairly sparky way. She brings also a kind of - well, a female intuition, I would say.

AMOS: Exactly. I was going to remark on that. She gets these moments where she figures something out.

Ms. RIMINGTON: She - yeah. She's got this sort of cool analytical intelligence, but then added to that is this female intuition that enables her to be the first to actually get to the solution.

AMOS: You write about Liz's time with her bosses in the office, some of them who put her in harm's way because they don't give her all the information she needs.

Now, at some moment, she goes to one of her bosses, and he dismisses her concerns. And he says if you're frightened, just say so. Can you read a little bit about her response?


(Reading) Liz could not believe her ears. Of course she was frightened. What sane person wouldn't be? When she'd read about Tucci's death in the bath, she'd remembered something else: that unpleasant pool of red in her bath at the hotel in Cambridge. But she wasn't going to mention that to Brian. She was damned if she'd give him the satisfaction of thinking she couldn't cope. She felt so outraged that she could hardly trust herself to speak.

AMOS: And how much of Liz is Stella?

Ms. RIMINGTON: Clearly, some of it, some of her, is me. And certainly, when I first joined MI5, it was a male-dominated world, and I had to fight quite hard, you know, to sort of hold my own in the same way she does. And I take some pleasure, I must say, in putting things into Liz's mouth that I might quite have liked to have said, but probably never did, when I was in her position.

(Soundbite of laughter)

AMOS: It was a surprise to me to read, and I'm assuming this part is true, that there are so many Russian oligarchs who have moved to London, and so this plot can revolve around them. Is it a surprise to you that Americans don't often know that London now has plenty of Russian oligarchs living there?

Ms. RIMINGTON: Yes, I was quite surprised. But certainly, in London, many of the best houses, the soccer teams, the best works of art, have been bought up by Russians who got very rich under Yeltsin when some of the state enterprises were sold off. And they have come to London, and they are spending their money in London. And, in fact, I was working on my plot when Alexander Litvinenko -who was not an oligarch, but was an ex-KGB officer…

AMOS: And a dissident.

Ms. RIMINGTON: …and a dissident - when he was murdered in an extremely unpleasant way, by having polonium put in his tea, and he took a long time to die. And in dying, he said that he was quite convinced that this was a plot by his former colleagues in the KGB. And so I felt somehow that fact had caught up on fiction when that happened.

AMOS: Life was imitating art.

Ms. RIMINGTON: Absolutely.

AMOS: You are writing in a country that has a fairly strict Official Secrets Act. Do you find that you have to be very careful about what you reveal in your fiction?

Ms. RIMINGTON: Well, I still have to submit my fiction for clearance by my former colleagues to make sure that I haven't inadvertently revealed something that might be damaging to their current operations. But the truth is that the further I get away, you know, from what's actually going on, the less I know of the detail of what's happening, so the less likely it is that I'm going to reveal something damaging. But, you know, sometimes, inadvertently, I've used a name or a place that is current, and they've asked me to change it - which I do gladly, of course.

AMOS: There's a real-world debate over whether terrorism should be treated as a law-enforcement issue, and there's different views about that between your country and the United States. Do you have an opinion? Do you come down on either side in how this fight against terrorism should go?

Ms. RIMINGTON: Well, in my opinion, terrorism is both a law-enforcement issue and an intelligence issue. And in the United Kingdom, our intelligence services don't have any law-enforcement powers, so they work very closely with the police. But it's essential, I think, to have intelligence. You've got to try and find out in advance what's being planned if you're going to be able to prevent it, and that's what goes on in the United Kingdom.

The intelligence services are working very hard to infiltrate these groups and to try and find out in advance what they're planning. And then, on the basis of intelligence now, people are arrested. One of the problems is that you don't have to turn intelligence into evidence if you're going to be able to prosecute people in court. And there's a big debate going on in the U.K. at the moment about how long people who are suspected of terrorism should be allowed to be held before they are actually charged while the police try to turn the intelligence into evidence, and that, you know, this is a big civil-liberties issue in the United Kingdom at the moment.

AMOS: And in your fiction, it's noteworthy to see how close cooperation there is between even local police, the intelligence agencies. This couldn't happen in an American spy novel.

Ms. RIMINGTON: No. But it is an accurate representation of how things go on in the United Kingdom. And I think it's absolutely essential. 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 the action on the street can be taken.

AMOS: Well, thank you very much for joining us. Stella Rimington is the former director general of MI5, Britain's domestic intelligence agency. Her new spy thriller is called "Illegal Action," and you can read an excerpt at

(Soundbite of music, "James Bond Theme")

AMOS: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Deborah Amos.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.