Written by Nick Setchfield — Nick Setchfield’s debut The War in the Dark, which came out last year, was highly enjoyable. In my review I said I was curious as to how a sequel would play out and now with The Spider Dance, we have the chance to find out.
In the first novel, British spy Christopher Winter discovered that there is much more to life than he thought – lurking in the shadows is the stuff of nightmares, the monsters of myth are real and humanity is engaged in a secret, deadly war against them. Indeed, before he lost his memory and was reinvented by British Intelligence, Winter was a powerful magician of questionable loyalties.
As The Spider Dance begins it is now 1965 and Winter, cut adrift from his pervious employers, is earning a meagre living in London’s criminal underground. Only the intervention of Libby Cracknell, a junior agent with the service, prevents him coming to a sticky end when a midnight exchange with some foreign buyers goes sideways.
As seems to be the case with so many ex-spies, Winter has been press ganged back into the service for one last job. Winter is needed to bring over a defector from Budapest. Allessandra Moltini has been working honeytraps for the state, and securing her would be a considerable coup.
The extraction is messy, several Czech agents die and the pair, with Winter’s cover blown, are forced to go on the run. A contact in the anti-communist resistance provides information about a larger supernatural conspiracy in which the undead and realpolitik intersect, and in Venice Moltini, Winter and Cracknell join forces in an attempt to save the day.
Cracknell is a welcome addition to the series. As a working class lesbian in the 1960s, she’s an outsider in British Intelligence, and the examination of her conflicting motives is one example how Setchfield elevates his pulp thriller above the field.
The inclusion of fantasy and horror elements in a thriller can often have the unintended effect of taking something away. All thrillers require a suspension of disbelief to a greater or lesser extent, and the appearance of vampires, demons, etc can make this harder to achieve. But Setchfield makes it work for him by drawing parallels between the secretive work of spies and those that have been inducted into occult knowledge. And of course, when it is done this well, it’s great fun.
The Thirty Nine Steps is again a touchstone. However, Setchfield is more ambitious with his sequel and it is possible to divine playful nods to other classics of popular culture. Bond is there obviously, From Russia with Love in particular, but also The Day of the Jackal, The Godfather and also Len Deighton’s Harry Palmer series.
As with The War in the Dark, The Spider Dance is more than just the sum of its influences. Winter is an enjoyably moody (anti-)hero, and the on-going inclusion of Cracknell bodes well for the series. While never forgetting to be entertaining, Setchfield shows with these two books how it is possible to exceed expectations when ambition is coupled with skill.
For more supernatural crime see John Connolly’s Charlie Parker series.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars