Fiction - A good yarn

At Risk

Stella Rimington <em>Hutchinson, 393pp, £12.99</em>

ISBN 0091799961

He is a tough young Tajik, smuggled into Britain with a boatload of illegal immigrants. She is the English girl detailed to receive him in a desolate Norfolk bungalow. Together, they are to carry out a carefully planned attack on behalf of a Muslim terrorist organisation. Things go awry when he shoots dead an Englishman who tries to steal his haversack as he emerges from the boat. From then the story is a race between this strange couple, as they travel towards their objective, and the assembled British forces as they mobilise to track and prevent them.

This novel would be successful even if its author wasn't Stella Rimington, lately head of MI5. She says she has drawn in part on her own experience, and we remember the minor commotion that greeted the publication of her memoirs. But I doubt if this time heads will be shaken or memos exchanged in Whitehall. I found it easy to forget Rimington's background in simple enjoyment of her tale.

Despite the up-to-date political background, this is old-fashioned stuff and none the worse for that. Eighty years ago, it would have been praised as "a rattling good yarn". Whether or not consciously chosen, the model is John Buchan. There are no narrative tricks, just a straightforward build-up of tension. The style is honest and sturdy, though Buchan would not have used "exit" as a transitive verb. Like him, Rimington uses vivid description of the countryside and the weather to heighten tension and strengthen belief. Like him, she enjoys describing meetings of the great and the good. There are touches of mischief; her main character from MI6, the partner and rival to her own service, is a brilliant, suntanned and upper-class cad. There are hints of parody, as in the portrait of a Norfolk squire trundling from a haircut at Trumper's to shirts at New & Lingwood, cigars at Davidoff, lunch at Brooks's and a lewd assignment in Shepherd Market. Though a Tory peer, I can score only two out of five on this card.

Also Buchanesque is the assured con-fidence of the British action against the would-be terrorists, which gathers strength after they commit two more murders of civilians who hamper their plan. The local police blunder about, but the people who count, namely the intelligence services and the SAS, are icy and strong. The outcome is never in doubt. The girl terrorist spells it out for her accomplice:

"These are the British we're dealing with, and they are a vengeful people. They are quite happy to see their elderly starve to death on council estates or die of neglect in filthy hospital corridors, but harm the least of them . . . and they will pursue you to the ends of the earth. They will never, ever give up."

The reader's sympathies turn against the two terrorists once they commit brutal murders. But later, as the net closes, they attract the sympathy that always goes to the hunted. This increases with the description of the killing of the man's family by Americans in Afghanistan who mistook a wedding party for a gathering of terrorists. We learn, too, how the woman's experiences drove her to Islamist fundamentalism. Or rather we think we learn, for there is a final twist to keep us on our toes.

I was not quite persuaded that the terrorists' rather prosaic target was worth the huge effort mounted against it, but to explain that doubt would give away the ending - something that can be justified only with a bad book. This one is first class, and will give pleasure to many.

Douglas Hurd's memoirs are published by Little, Brown. He has started work on a life of Sir Robert Peel