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`Contact Zero': Spy Thriller Starts Strong, But Bogs Down

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"Contact Zero" by David Wolstencroft; Dutton ($24.95)


David Wolstencroft is quickly making a name for himself as the new master of spy fiction.

"MI-5," the BBC TV series he created, which is now airing on A&E , is a cult favorite. Last year his first novel, "Good News, Bad News" told the too-frenetic tale of two spies who are friends, and are given orders to kill each other. It was fun, with some good dialogue and a bracing wit, but was ultimately undone by its length and the unnecessarily dense plot.

He's back with "Contact Zero," a mostly breezy - if overly long - examination of one of spydom's greatest myths. Where do agents go when there's nowhere to turn? In training, new recruits hear, unofficially of course, of something called Contact Zero. But is it a person? Is it a place? Is it rogue agents who have dedicated themselves to undermining the British spy agency MI-6?

"Zero" gets off to a rip-roaring, violent start: At the same time in several countries across the world, new agents are attacked. Most are killed, but three survive and when they call the home office, their existence is denied. They can't go home and they're being chased by killers, so where can they go? The three meet and realize they're all in the same position and there's nowhere to turn except Contact Zero.

Ben, Lucy and Nat use their considerable training to follow clue after clue from secret agents and Web sites and code words. They are led around the world, closer - they hope - to whatever Contact Zero is. But those clues could also be leading them into a trap.

In addition, one of the three - or perhaps it's the fourth survivor of the attacks they meet along the way - is working for MI-6, pretending to be in the same position as the other recruits. The author, however, reveals too soon who it is, taking the fun away.

Wolstencroft keeps things moving for the most part. But he brings things to a screeching halt when he flashes back to the training years and affairs of the heart of the new recruits. He also gives extensive background on some pretty minor characters that bogs things down. And at the same time, there doesn't seem to be enough information and the characters remain shadows throughout the book.

The ending's a bit of a disappointment, too, ending in a whimper, not a bang.

Still, there's enough going on and lots of excitement, and, as a writer, Wolstencroft has come a long way since "Good News, Bad News."

He's someone to watch.


(c) 2005, Detroit Free Press. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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