Good News Bad News, by David Wolstencroft

Spies, villains and a hasty rush to climax
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The Independent Culture

This first novel is billed as "from the creator of Spooks", referring to David Wolstencroft's track-record in writing the successful BBC espionage series. It's a fast read with enough eccentricities to pull a reader through its plot. And, as for its quality, it see-saws between good and bad news.

This first novel is billed as "from the creator of Spooks", referring to David Wolstencroft's track-record in writing the successful BBC espionage series. It's a fast read with enough eccentricities to pull a reader through its plot. And, as for its quality, it see-saws between good and bad news.

The good news comes from the business of character and observation, the jokes at the expense of its genre, the high adventure and nuggets of workable spy-soap about the cost of a life of duplicity.

The bad news consists of awkwardness in its sudden jumbles of point of view, which need not bother a scriptwriter but trip up a novelist. The storyline winds down, rather than cranks up, to deliver the revelations we expect; and there are vaguenesses about the supporting cast that give the novel a dying-man's-dream feel.

After a first chapter teaser, the book starts properly ("two days earlier") in a tiny photo-developing booth in Oxford Street Tube station where twentysomething slacker Charlie and fortysomething slob George work together. A glamorous customer drops off dull globe-trotting snaps and Charlie jokes that she must be a spy. Then he notices George acting suspiciously in concert with the woman, which intrigues him enough to investigate, and get mixed up in gun-play that leaves an apparently major character as a dead irrelevance.

Charlie and George reveal they are both spies for a credibly messy British secret service and the plot kicks in properly when each is given an order to murder the other.

The best thing in the book is the relationship between Charlie and George. They manage to be both the sit-com losers in dead-end jobs they seem to be, and struggling adepts in a murderously cut-throat world.

The worst things are the frequent plunges from credible yet exciting chase business into infodump prose (such as a paragraph explaining how a bullet through a nostril causes death), or lazy contrivances (such as the vital computer password that can be guessed on the third go).

Wolstencroft's villains are sketchy, with an overworked twist in the relationship between the major baddies. But the "intelligence provider" milieu, which is all about making imaginary enemies real, is pertinent and pointed.

As the back-story, which involves the apparently accidental death of Charlie's wife, unravels, the signposts towards a 24-style revelation in the home stretch get bigger. Like many modern entertainments sold on the basis of sample chapters and outline, this novel rushes towards its climax as if a deadline were long past and the book's ending had to be assembled over a weekend. It answers all the questions, but ignores the questions about the answers.

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