(UN)POPULAR CULTURE

The home of writer & author A. J. BLACK

Just under a year ago on my honeymoon, perched by a pool in Phuket, Thailand, baking under stunning sunshine, I found myself about to start Nick Setchfield’s debut novel The War in the Dark, one of several books grabbed as holiday reading. What followed could just have been considered a holiday romance – a dalliance with a tome that blew me away by how stylish, urbane, witty and exciting it turned out to be. It was anything but. I have waited patiently this last year for The Spider Dance to see if that experience might be repeated.

The good news is that, on the whole, it has.

In fairness to The Spider Dance, which didn’t quite grab me by the lapels and fling me into supernatural thriller abandon like The War in the Dark (which repeated that trick on a recent re-read), is that Setchfield has deliberately set out here to write a different novel, and as well he should.

If The War in the Dark took a cue from Ian Fleming, brewed it up with Indiana Jones, and threw some H.P. Lovecraft in for good measure, The Spider Dance is more akin to a mash up of Len Deighton, Mario Puzo (or Francis Ford Coppola) and Hammer horror (with even a bit of The Long Good Friday). Those touchstones don’t *quite* tickle my personal pickle in the same way but they often work strongly in a sequel that changes tempo, placing troubled intelligence agent Christopher Winter on less headlong, often darker struggle into a deeper, creepier and sinister underworld. Setchfield, from the outset, is not simply repeating the beats of his first book.

That’s a confident writer at play already, someone who understands the world he is developing with this series, someone unafraid to throw his character into new areas of it and figure out if he sinks or swims. Winter is an appealing protagonist because there is often a sense he is a man without a plan; he may have a particular set of skills that come in handy, but he has a shaggy dog pensiveness about him rather than a suave, arrogant, controlled brio. Indeed often Winter seems to just be maintaining control over his inner demons, and this is a man where that is a *literalised* statement. The Spider Dance’s primary narrative is, in no small part, driven by the secrets of his alter-ego Tobias Hart – a powerful, devilish warlock whose historic global path of magical havoc is still reverberating amongst Italian crime syndicates, London gangsters and a particular supernatural fraternity Setchfield here explores and fleshes out. Winter in this sense recalls Angel from Joss Whedon’s Buffyverse, a haunted, tortured, unwitting, undead hero constantly trying to keep his evil id, Angelus, at bay.

In some sense Setchfield taps Fleming here in that he doesn’t bring back the same heroes or villains left hanging from his previous novel.

Two new female faces serve as support, including spunky SIS agent Libby Cracknell, who is delightfully contemporary in her pro-feminine pluck despite the 1965 setting – though Setchfield does remind readers she is navigating a sexist boys-only club at points. She works well as a counterpoint to Winter, better perhaps than the villains this time who feel less defined or menacing than in The War in the Dark, but they do expose a supernatural threat it would be remiss to spoil here in the form of the ‘Shadowless’, which allows Setchfield to put an inventive spin on a very very well-known and well-utilised ‘monster’. Much like in his previous book, the author drapes the tale in menace as he vividly sets the scene, be it a smoky, hot ritualistic Naples or chilly Alpine setting. Setchfield’s prose evokes mood and texture in a way I continue to see few writers successfully pull off with such aplomb; I feel absorbed reading his work when the chapters are flowing.

Did I love The Spider Dance as much as The War in the Dark? No. But that’s besides the point. That same lightning was unlikely to strike twice, particularly as Nick Setchfield works hard at crafting a sequel which expands a book universe which is increasingly filled with a dark, operatic and thrilling supernatural texture. The Spider Dance is a more than fitting second chapter in one of my favourite book series running today, by degrees an exciting and haunting journey of occult espionage that pulls you close for the ride.

Soak it up – whether you’re on holiday or not!

Thanks to Titan Books for the following interview with Nick Setchfield discussing The Spider Dance:

A J. BLACK: So, Nick, first off, congratulations on the success of The War in the Dark, a book I absolutely loved. The Spider Dance is a cracking sequel. We talked briefly last year about this next book but going into it, what were the key things you wanted to achieve with this follow up?

NICK SETCHFIELD: Firstly, and most crucially, a reason for it to exist. I sold The War in the Dark as part of a two-book deal but had nothing up my sleeve for a follow-up. I needed this to be very much a story in its own right, not just a coda or an afterthought. Obviously it helps if you’ve read War – especially if you’re primed with the secrets of Winter’s backstory – but I’ve been delighted to hear that people who came to The Spider Dance first have enjoyed it as a standalone adventure. Beyond that I wanted to expand the occult horizons of Winter’s world, so I introduce him to vampires – in all manner of lethal and intriguing varieties – and an echelon of demons he’s never encountered before. I also wanted a change of texture and temperature. The first book is mist and frost. This one’s sweat and sun.

AJB: There is a clear style change in The Spider Dance in terms of tone – this is less Indiana Jones and more of an occult take on The Godfather in many respects – was that intentional? Did you go into this determined to not simply replicate the formula of book one?

NS: Hm. I can still see the Indy influence on the page – in fact there were a couple of occasions where I fretted that things were veering a little too close to some classic Indiana Jones moments! Hopefully I’ve succeeded in filing off the serial numbers… But yes, I was determined to do something slightly different with book two, while keeping the essential flavour I’d established in War. There’s more of a crime story element here, for sure, but the biggest influence was undoubtedly The Day of the Jackal, the god king of airport paperbacks. I love that kind of pan-European thriller and wanted to splice that mission-driven intensity with a horror/dark fantasy story.

AJB: Obviously in the previous book, your main player Christopher Winter had the dual narrative and revelation of his previous incarnation Tobias Hart. He reminded me of Angel at times here from the Joss Whedon TV show – constantly working to keep Angelus from the world. How did you approach Winter’s arc in The Spider Dance?

NS: I gave him a resolution at the end of The War in the Dark but I always knew he’d have an itch to discover more about his past. He’s that kind of character. So The Spider Dance essentially pinballs him between two opposing positions: the need to discover more about the man he used to be and the realisation that his personal history is an absolute bear-trap. There are choices to be made. Winter couldn’t come back as a simple, four-square action hero after the revelations in the first book. He had to delve deeper inside himself, and so did I.

AJB: While these books certainly aren’t in the exact tone of Ian Fleming, we do get new female characters (if not quite love interests) to replace the mysterious Karina from the last book. You said Karina came to you as you wrote – was it the same for Libby and Alessandra, your chief female characters here?

Alessandra formed from my earliest, most noodling ideas for The War in the Dark. I thought of a succubus working honeytraps for the Russians but there was no compelling reason for her to be in that story, so I set her aside. Here she’s a crucial part of the plot, not just dressing. Libby arrived as very much a foil for Winter, so she needed youth and cheek on her side. My first impulse was to make her rather posh but she found her true shape as a North London urchin, in debt to Twiggy. People may assume the name Cracknell’s an homage to Sarah Cracknell from Saint Etienne – a band I love – but it was actually inspired by seeing the name of her dad, second unit director Derek Cracknell, in the credits of a Bond movie! It had the right kind of quirky Englishness to it. But the Saint Etienne connection fits too, given their devotion to ‘60s London.

AJB: The Spider Dance has a dark exoticism to it, particularly given Naples is a major location central to the plot. Place feels very important to these stories and how you immerse the reader into this world. What drove you to use these locations, and Naples in particular?

NS: Place is everything to me, and it’s always an enjoyable challenge to capture the essence of somewhere, however romanticised. But I think you have an equal duty to the myth of a place as the reality of it. Budapest gave me the classic spycraft backdrop that would transition the book from The War in the Dark. Venice had the sense of an enchanted city, not entirely solid, where the fabric of the world felt suitably mercurial. And Naples… Naples was just perfect, as I grew to realise the more I researched it. Not only did it have a religious/folkloric darkness beneath that relentless coastal sun – the skull-worshipping crypt in the book is absolutely real – but I discovered there’s something beneath the city that was quite spookily right for my story. I couldn’t have dreamt up a better location.

Nick Setchfield, thank you very much!

If you like this piece, I’d bloody love it if you could buy me a coffee on Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/ajblackwriter

One thought on “Book Review: The Spider Dance (Nick Setchfield) + Author Interview

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