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Posted on 3 May 2022 in Fiction |

STELLA RIMINGTON The Devil’s Bargain. Reviewed by Ann Skea

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The new novel from the former head of MI5 is a page-turner despite the plot holes.

First, it was a Bulgarian flag for Harry’s young son, to impress his school friends. Then it was some pretty earrings for his wife – ‘just tiny pieces of red glass in some sort of metal setting’ (although his wife’s friend said they were rubies set in gold). Finally, Igor concealed a wad of money in some newspapers that he said might interest Harry, then walked away and disappeared.

It was Cold War days and Harry Bristow was Heysham Port’s Special Branch Officer, responsible for checking Soviet and East European crew on and off their ships: ‘They were allowed on land, but not to stay.’ Igor’s disappearance from the Hungarian ship Bogdana was clearly a break of regulations and Harry should have reported it, but he felt compromised by Igor’s gifts, so he said nothing and hid the money away and never used any of it.

Since that time, Harry’s career had prospered and he became Deputy Head of Special Branch in Liverpool, but guilt always haunted him and made him feel like a fraud. So, when he recognises Igor in front of him in a bank queue, and learns that he is now Peter Robinson, owner of Robinson’s Kitchens and a popular member of Liverpool City Council – potentially a Russian agent in a position of power – he knows he must do something about it.

Peter Robinson, whose real name is Pyotr Romanov, is indeed a Russian spy. His handler had infiltrated him into England years before and funded his life and his business there. Peter had done well, gradually establishing himself as a reliable, honest Englishman, whose mixed past (invented, and documented where necessary) explained his unusual accent and his apparent lack of relatives. The break-up of the Soviet Union, however, had cut him off from Moscow.

The last time he had tried to make contact, calling from a phone box miles away from Liverpool, the number was unobtainable. The silence wouldn’t last forever, Romanov told himself, but he found the absence of any contact at all unnerving.

He determines to continue on his own, sure that eventually he will be contacted and ‘the progress he would by then have made in infiltrating Britain would be of great value’. When he realises that he has been recognised by Bristow, however, he knows he must do something about it, so he sends him photographs taken when the ‘gifts’ had been handed over and demands a meeting.

Meanwhile, American and British security services start to take an interest in Peter Robinson, and two young women become deeply involved.

Manon Tyler, who has been working in the CIA agency in New York, has just been posted to the American Embassy in London. Before she leaves New York she attends a lecture given to agency staff by Dimitri Kazov, a former general who had once been Head of Foreign Intelligence in the KGB. He talks about the dozens of illegals he had infiltrated into America and Britain, most of whom had died or returned to Russia. His mention of one ‘who did not return’, however, sparks Manon’s interest. After the lecture she asks him:

‘Was he sent to Great Britain by any chance? Do you think he might still be there? I’m interested because I am just about to go to London on a posting. I’d love to meet him.’

Kazov considered this. ‘It was indeed to Britain he was sent. In my opinion he is unlikely still to be there. And certainly he would not be active now… I think he would have returned home some time ago.’

When Manon ask the man’s name – ‘Either his real name or his cover name?’ –  Kazov becomes icy and claims to have forgotten it.

In London, Manon meets up with an old English friend, Louise Donovan. Louise has recently become disillusioned with her work as a solicitor and taken a job as a campaign organiser. She has just been in Liverpool organising ‘the final week of the Robinson campaign’ for a seat in parliament. When Peter Robinson wins that seat, he comes to thank Louise and takes her out to dinner. A relationship begins and Louise is, at first, delighted, but later begins to question it, especially after chatting to the driver Peter employs to ferry him to and from Liverpool and around London.

So, the scene is set. Louise and Manon become an important part of the investigation of Peter Robinson by British and American security services; Robinson advances his career as a member of parliament while juggling meetings with Bristow; and when Bristow resigns from the police, Robinson offers him a new job to keep him quiet. Added to this, Moscow suddenly decides to re-activate Peter Robinson as a spy, but internal fighting among officials there adds confusion to the plot.

Stella Rimington, as a former Head of MI5 in England, certainly knows the British secret services well, and knows the ways in which MI5 collaborates with the American CIA, and the tensions that are often present in this collaboration. She uses this knowledge well in this book, but there are aspects of the plot that do seem too coincidental and, on occasion, frankly unbelievable. Would experienced secret service professionals really let an untrained woman like Manon become deeply involved in an investigation, especially when they find that she goes beyond her instructions? Would a man who has spent painstaking and ultra-careful years perfecting his British persona let a girlfriend hear him having a telephone conversation in Russian or risk her seeing Russian books among the volumes he is moving to his new flat? There is also one place where information given earlier about the suspect’s movements is contradicted later: a man who is tailing Robinson describes two men going into a church, Robinson being the second (p.87-8): later Robinson’s driver describes Robinson going into the church first, and the second man heading ‘into the church after Robinson’ (p.146). This seems like careless detective work on the part of the author.

Some of the characterisation in The Devil’s Bargain is thin and the conversations rather wooden, and the plot is competent but not inspiring. However, I did have to keep reading just to see how this unlikely story is resolved.

 I wonder, too, whether Stella Rimington deliberately chose to give her Russian villain, Peter Robinson, the name of a well-known fellow writer of detective fiction.

Stella Rimington The Devil’s Bargain Bloomsbury 2022 PB 272pp $29.99

Dr Ann Skea is a freelance reviewer, writer and an independent scholar of the work of Ted Hughes. She is author of Ted Hughes: The Poetic Quest (UNE 1994, and currently available for free download here). Her work is internationally published and her Ted Hughes webpages ( are archived by the British Library.

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