Author Q&A:
Stella Rimington

The Moscow Sleepers
(Bloomsbury, hardback £12.99, ebook £10.99)

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In the latest thriller by the former head of MI5, a man dying in a Vermont hospital wakes up and the nurses follow instructions to alert the FBI. News of this suspected Russian illegal soon reaches Rimington’s recurring hero Liz Carlyle, who is also contacted by a top secret source in Berlin who needs to speak to her. Rimington’s timely thriller also features a Russian sleeper agent in Brussels and a Suffolk boarding school that is not what it seems.

Without giving too much away, what’s The Moscow Sleepers about? 
The Moscow Sleepers is about Russia’s efforts to undermine and destabilise Western democracies. A couple of years ago when I thought up this plot, refugees were flooding into Europe and Mrs Merkel was welcoming them into Germany. Her policy was unpopular with many people and she was shortly up for re-election. I thought that situation offered a wonderful opportunity for Russian meddling. In the book they use a combination of undercover agents and cyber activity to cause trouble. MI6 strikes back too with an undercover operation in Moscow.

Tell us a bit about your writing process. Do your plots come to you fully formed or do they emerge through the characters?
The plots occur to me as I think about what is threatening security in the world and what might be happening behind the scenes. The detail comes gradually as I imagine a set of events or clues for Liz Carlyle and her colleagues to unravel. Then things that I hadn’t thought of at first just seem to happen – and that’s the fun of writing the books.

This is the tenth Liz Carlyle novel. How has she developed or changed over the series?
In the first novel, At Risk, Liz is not long out of university, new in MI5 and quite spiky. She lives in a rather grotty basement flat, has unsuitable boyfriends and resents her colleague in MI6 who patronises her. As the years have gone by she has gone through some tough times both at work and in her private life, including the death of someone she loved, and is now wiser, more thoughtful and mature, and, let’s hope, on the brink of being happier.

What changes will she have seen in spycraft? A shift in the balance between human intelligence and signal intelligence, for example?
Intelligence work has changed a lot since 2004 when Liz first appeared. Then, post 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq, the main emphasis was on countering terrorism. More recently Russia has risen up the threat list. The opportunities provide by cyberspace have changed the methods of intelligence attack and defence, though human sources are still vital. The intelligence world is a less secretive, covert place than it used to be, with even GCHQ now having a public-facing department.

Can people who weren’t in the security service write credibly about it?
Many of the best spy writers have worked in that world – John Le Carré, Graham Greene, Somerset Maugham – and I think it’s easier to get the tone right and be credible if you have. The mistake many writers who haven’t had that experience make is to assume it is a world of violent and continuous action and they miss out on the investigation, analysis, human interaction and team work that is the heart of it.

Is the Russian threat to the west greater now under Putin than when you were at MI5 and how should it be countered?
I joined MI5 at the height of the Cold War and much of my early career was in countering espionage and subversion from the Soviet Union and their allies in the Warsaw Pact countries of Eastern Europe. The threat today seems quite different and more difficult to counter. No doubt the intelligence services are still trying to recruit human sources to provide secret information, but much of the attack nowadays seems to be by disruptive hacking and by propaganda or false information put out through TV channels or social media. The best way to counter this seems to be to expose it.

Were you surprised by the apparent amateurishness of the GRU operation at the global chemical weapons watchdog in Holland or were they content to have been discovered?
I was surprised by the poor tradecraft of the GRU operatives in Salisbury and Holland. I can’t explain why they have got so lax. Maybe they have got away with operations in countries with less sophisticated defences than ours; maybe they have just got arrogant; maybe they just don’t care about being exposed and are happy to deny it and defy us to do anything about it.

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