Reviews from Lord Taylor of Glencoe
Secret Asset: Stella Rimmington, 5–18 August, 2011.
My rating: ♦♦◊◊◊
The former Director General of MI5 has written a spy thriller. It should have been the equivalent of Jamie Oliver cooking you dinner or David Beckham teaching your kids how to play football. In fact, it was a bit like Bruce Forsythe telling you how to stay young. I don’t think I truly understood what an airport thriller was like until I read this.
The problem with Secret Asset isn’t just that it wasn’t good enough to be good, it also wasn’t bad enough to be bad. At least bad books have the decency of helping you dislike it. But Secret Asset was just… bleh.
There are two cases being investigated: an upcoming terror attack by Muslim extremists, and a mole in MI5 planted by the IRA back in the times of the Troubles. The cases, like in all such books, inevitably merge into one connected dose of criminality.
Our leading lady, Liz Carlyle, is a likeable enough sort of a lead character, and Rimmington at least tries to flesh her out a bit; she is single, her flat is untidy and her mother has cancer. The cancer storyline in particular was about as random as it gets. We meet her mother in one brief scene and the treatment is mentioned a few times, always in the back of Liz’s mind. It seems like an afterthought by Rimmington to try to humanise her main character but fails. It adds nothing, isn’t developed and just seems like the keyboard meandered into a bit of a rut with that one.
Among Liz’s less human abilities are omniscience, or so it seems. Every hunch Liz has, every bit of intuition, is – quelle surprise – spot on. But despite her superhuman mind being laid out before us, we never really get the chance to get to know her properly. There’s no sympathy or understanding of the character other than a name of the person driving the plot.
The supporting cast is a simple collection of average fuzzy nobodys with nothing in particular to distinguish them from each other. They are a collection of stock characters, any of which could be dropped with no impact on the story.
Whodunnit in the whodunnit is plainly obvious. Even when you figure it out in books, you want to at least doubt yourself a bit. But it’s so incredibly stark from the outset, even Rimmington doesn’t bother getting excited with the reveal. Liz tells her boss, ‘It’s so and so’, and her boss agrees she’s probably right (of course). It has all the excitement of a wet fart.
When the story limps to its grand climax, it conjures all the enthusiasm of a cold pizza. The resolution of the villain’s crimes are ‘off-screen’, as it were, with some boring cameo character explaining what happened to them. There’s absolutely no reason we couldn’t have at least been shown that.
On the plus side, the writing style is clear and readable. A lot of novels – especially thrillers – have heavy bits you need to wade through, but Rimmington at least manages to keep you going with relative ease, although that’s probably to do with the lack of substance rather than any particular craft or design.
Remember, the author once ran the government body she’s writing about. Her former career as Director General is emblazoned on the front cover. And the inside flap. And the page before the inside flap. It’s a USP, and part of what drew me to the book in the first place, so it’s not unfair to expect some return on that boast. But instead of a unique insight into an intriguing world, instead of plots complex and villains insurmountable, we get a damp squib. It’s readable, and you’ll get through it fast. And then you’ll completely forget all about it.