Spy Chief Rimington Sparks Backlash as Booker Judge: Interview

The cover jacket of "Rip Tide" by Stella Rimington. Source: Bloomsbury via Bloomberg

Stella Rimington has stared down KGB operatives and outwitted IRA militants. As the former director general of MI5 -- where she was both the first female boss and the first to be publicly named -- she’s no stranger to media scrutiny, either. Yet as head judge of this year’s Man Booker Prize, she finds herself flummoxed by the vitriol of London’s literati.

It’s not that the 76-year-old Rimington is softening with age. Since hanging up her trench coat in 1996, she has served as a non-executive director of companies including Marks & Spencer, published a bestselling memoir, “Open Secret,” and written a series of novels featuring workaholic spy Liz Carlyle. (“Rip Tide,” the latest, begins when a British Muslim is mysteriously found among a gang of Somali pirates and culminates in a race to foil a terrorist plot in the English Midlands.)

Rimington finds it hard to refuse interesting offers, which is how she became involved with the Man Booker Prize and was charged with reading 138 novels in six months.

“A wiser person might have said no,” she says with a laugh over a lunch of heritage beets with goat’s curd and roasted cobnuts at Hix, a restaurant in London’s Soho area.

The shortlist chosen by Rimington and her fellow judges has literary London in such a flap that a new prize -- pointedly dubbed the Literature Prize -- has been proposed. Many dismiss the shortlist as lowbrow, and Rimington’s credentials in particular have been called into question.

No Ghostwriters

“I don’t feel I’m an unconventional Man Booker chair. I don’t think there is such a thing as a conventional one as you’ll probably see if you look back at those who have been chairs during its history,” she says, going on to rebut accusations that she relies on a ghostwriter for her thrillers.

Rimington majored in English Literature at the University of Edinburgh and was trained as an archivist before joining MI5, initially as a secretary.

“The almost universal expectation was that women would only work until they got married. If you wanted not to do that, you had to do it in a more subtle way,” she says. This accounts for her unassuming facade, behind which her green-eyed gaze coolly appraises our fellow diners. She instinctively stops talking when a waiter nears.

As she rose up through the ranks, becoming director of counter-terrorism just before Pan Am flight 103 was brought down over Lockerbie, Scotland, Rimington nursed an ambition to write espionage thrillers. They are what spies read for relaxation, she says. John le Carre and John Buchan are among her favorite authors.

Liz Carlyle

She was determined that her own protagonist be a woman. “Part of the fun is enabling her, particularly when men try to patronize her,” she says of Liz Carlyle, who manages a dynamic love life and indulges a taste for vintage clothes. “She can say things I might have felt but didn’t actually say.”

Despite having lived through plenty of plots, Rimington likes to keep her novels up-to-date and says she takes her storylines from the news rather than experience. This morning’s headlines suggest she’s doing an uncannily prescient job: Six Birmingham men are in court, accused of planning a terrorist attack. The similarities to “Rip Tide” are striking.

Only as we leave the restaurant do I notice that her business-like herringbone blazer and white shirt are paired with bronze loafers and voluminous silk pants. As an ensemble, it determinedly does not blend in -- the first sign that Rimington has indeed left her service days behind her.

Security Clearance

Though she still submits her novels to MI5 for security clearance, she notes that with time, the burden of official secrets lessens. They either cease to be secrets or are simply forgotten.

Meanwhile, her choice of winner for the Man Booker Prize is one secret she is guarding closely until the announcement is made tomorrow. Though she admires in passing the atmospheric setting of A.D. Miller’s Moscow tale, “Snowdrops,” seems lukewarm about Julian Barnes’s “The Sense of an Ending” and confesses that WWII -- the partial backdrop for Esi Edugyan’s “Half Blood Blues” -- isn’t her favorite subject, she insists that all six are “good reads.”

It’s a typically diplomatic response, and one that’s sure to irk her critics all the more.

“Rip Tide” is published by Bloomsbury (369 pages, $25, 12.99 pounds). To buy this book in North America, click here.

(Hephzibah Anderson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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