You get the feeling, almost from the first page of GOOD NEWS, BAD NEWS, that you are reading something special. There are all sorts of influences here, from John le Carre to Monty Python to even John Woo --- but all of it is pure David Wolstencroft. GOOD NEWS, BAD NEWS is Wolstencroft's first novel, but not his first artistic work; he is the creator and writer of the British spy drama "Spooks," broadcast in the United States on the A&E Network under the name "MI-5."
Wolstencroft nails every scene, every sentence, every word like the English language had evolved to its present stage just for him. The proof positive here is about halfway through GOOD NEWS, BAD NEWS. I am sorely tempted to reproduce the passage here, but I will not because I want you to get this book and read it; suffice it to say that it is contained in a passage that describes the eighteenth century and the Cambridge Library in terms of the feeling that both invoke. The closest that anything comes to it for dead-bang brilliance is Bob Dylan's line from "Visions of Johanna": inside the museum, infinity goes up on trial/voices echo this is what salvation must be like after a while. Yes. Wolstencroft is a bit more scatological in his description, but the emotion it invokes is the same, stated in such a way that, once you have read it, you know that no other way will come close.
But I am ignoring an important element here while getting lost in the literary wonders of this work. GOOD NEWS, BAD NEWS is a fun read. I may have read a better book (or two) this year, but I have not read one that is as enjoyable an experience as this one is. Wolstencroft has somehow mastered the ability of injecting humor into his narrative without sacrificing an iota of suspense. I do not believe that I have ever read a novel wherein Edward Lear was referenced, however briefly and indirectly, in the middle of a scene where two guys are desperately on the run, and yet the reference is not stretched or strained; it is perfect.
So what is GOOD NEWS, BAD NEWS about? It is so difficult to summarize without giving away the multitude of surprises within. Suffice to say that two British spies, both of whom work for "the Agency," are, for different reasons, ready to retire. They are each given a final assignment: each is assigned to terminate the other. This poses a number of problems: the men are friends, each is aware of the other's assignment, and they have no clue as to what either of them might have done to deserve the extreme termination. As a result, they trust each other with a wary eye as they simultaneously seek to evade death from an unknown source while attempting to determine how their peculiar set of circumstances has come about.
Both men are very, very good at what they do, and are well versed in all the elements of spy craft --- but so is their mysterious pursuer. The fact that neither of the targeted agents has been completely honest with the other heightens the suspense, which would be excruciating if not for Wolstencroft's droll, wonderful wit, which he exhibits in tempered moderation while dealing out surprise after surprise, right up to the final chapter.
Put GOOD NEWS, BAD NEWS at the top of your Don't Miss list for 2004. Even if you hate espionage novels, Wolstencroft's style and wit will keep you interested and aboard this wild ride, and scanning the television listings for those episodes of "MI-5" that you missed.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on May 4, 2011