The War in the Dark – Book Review + interview with author Nick Setchfield

It is a rare treat in this day and age for a piece of fiction to so engross, so thrill you from cover to cover, that you feel as if the writer delved into your mind and plucked a novel straight out of your interests, but that is exactly what happened to me with The War in the Dark, the debut novel from writer Nick Setchfield.

To suggest this novel was lurking around my brain space waiting to be removed by a skilled scribe is giving me way too much credit and Setchfield not enough, but The War in the Dark appealed to me with the rip-roaring fervour I felt the first time I set eyes on Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark. This is appropriate given how Indiana Jones is one of the author’s key influences, alongside James Bond, in a supernatural action thriller which fuses the gritty espionage theatrics of 50’s/60’s Ian Fleming, a level of mystical derring-do akin to Spielberg’s big-budget take on 30’s adventure serials, and not a little spooky or even Lovecraftian horror in places. If that sounds like a tantalising cocktail, make no mistake that the narrative delivers on the promise.

Setchfield crafts a terrific new protagonist in Christopher Winter, a British operative in the chilly London of the early 1960’s; a world gripped by the Cold War, on the verge of counter-culture, and still living in the shadow of World War Two. Winter could be Fleming’s Bond, or equally could have stepped out of a Len Deighton novel; he is detached and enigmatic while being darkly charming and engaging, and Setchfield takes him on a fascinating journey it would be remiss of me to spoil. Ultimately, the Winter at the start of the novel is not the same man come the end, and the author skilfully manages to weave a compelling single story while opening up a much broader world with immense sequel opportunity.

Winter is flanked by a myriad range of interesting supporting characters – particularly Karina Lazarova, a kickass KGB agent with plenty of skeletons in her own closet – but Setchfield keeps the piece rooted in Winter’s journey of discovery while exploring and exposing a supernatural Cold War behind the political one which dominates the age. In doing so, he manages to suggest a broader mythology and secret history filled with arcane (even in some cases real-life) figures who strike a chord, such as the Widow of Kursk who breezes in and probably steals the novel from under Winter’s nose. On every page, you feel the potential for character and story, as the narrative eats you up with a beguiling spring in its step.

Beyond this, for a first novel, Setchfield writes with a florid class and style which belies the fact this is his debut. He has a wonderful sense of place, of travelogue, of immersing the reader into their surroundings, whether we’re in an ‘impossible’ house in Vienna or on the shores of darkest Africa. His prose is concise and lyrical around a great sense of pacing and characterisation. By the end, this reader just wanted more – more of these characters and more of this world.

The War in the Dark doesn’t reinvent the wheel. It borrows heavily from all kinds of sources you’ll be more familiar with. Yet it whips them up into such a fun, thrilling brew, sometimes they begin to feel new again. That’s a rare treat. We can only hope Nick Setchfield gets the chance to continue exploring what could be one of the most exciting new continuing worlds in modern fiction.

Continue reading below for an exclusive interview with The War in the Dark author Nick Setchfield about developing the novel…

TONY BLACK: Your inspirations for The War in the Dark – Bond, MR James, Indiana Jones etc… – are all over the novel, but what sparked you into fusing them all into the same plot?

NICK SETCHFIELD: I’ve always loved the more macabre, outlandish edge of the Bond stories – Live and Let Die is such a rich brew of pulp heroics and pseudo-horror – and I wanted to push that a little further, because it’s a fabulous flavour. The other influences seemed to fit naturally into the tale I was telling: that wonderful dusty dread of MR James and the sheer map-racing joy of Indiana Jones inspired me when I was trying to create atmosphere and momentum. Some of the most fun I had writing the book was throwing genres together and watching them clash: there’s a scene where a Soviet gunship helicopter strafes a fairytale tower in the woods and that kind of collision really thrills me. Hopefully the reader too.

TB: The character of Christopher Winter is almost akin to a low-fi Bond, more of a Richard Burton in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold in places – was he an amalgam not just of Fleming’s character but 60’s British spies in general?

NS: I was determined that he wasn’t just a Bond surrogate – and that’s a challenge when you’re writing about a British Intelligence officer in the 1960s. I have a theory that Bond is the apex predator of the spy thriller genre; such a powerful archetype that he warped the whole ecology of adventure stories (you only have to look at how many 007 wannabes arrived in the ‘60s – and even today that archetype feeds into modern action movie heroes). Len Deighton created a plausible low-rent alternative in Harry Palmer, and I stole a little of that for sure. Winter’s very much a suburbanite at heart, with everyday tastes that Fleming would totally baulk at. I had fun slipping in references to Quix washing up liquid and Simpkins travel sweets, just to invert the kind of high-end product placement you find in the Bond books. As to whether he’s an amalgam of ‘60s spies in general… there’s definitely a touch of Callan and Danger Man in the mix, rather than the playboy adventurers like John Steed and Simon Templar, much as I love them.

TB: There’s a strong level of occultism in the novel which feels somewhat Aleister Crowley, even Lovecraftian in places – how much research & how far down the occult horror rabbit hole did this take you?

NS: A fair bit of research into the stuff that was inspired by actual history (the rest came from the edges of my imagination marked Here Be Monsters…). There’s a key figure in British occult history who’s crucial to the plot, as readers will discover, and he was an obsession for a while. I was lucky enough to inspect some of his actual books of magic – they were so precious they could only be viewed under cover of a black drape, which felt perfectly spooky. He had made annotations in the margins: doodles, equations, caricatures. He felt incredibly close at that point. I was convinced he was judging me for using him in this story… Probably just paranoia, but who knows? Cue Rod Serling…

TB: There is also a strong undercurrent of political commentary here, with the idea of a Cold War *inside* a Cold War – what made you set the novel at this point in history?

NS: I love the ‘60s in general, though usually I’m more drawn to the midpoint, which is a pop-cultural sweet spot for me. But this story demanded to be set in the early years of the decade, with the long shadow of WW2 still falling over East and West. The book needed that kind of grey chill rather than the colour and energy of the mid-‘60s. It’s an inspiring setting, really: a world on the brink of monumental change, still very much emerging from the rubble. So many faultlines. And given the current political climate it felt strangely timely. The eternal war…

TB: You’ve said in other interviews that Karina Lazarova, the book’s heroine, is as much a mystery to you as the reader – off the back of 60’s spy heroine inspirations, was this intentional or more a process of discovery as you wrote her?

NS: All the characters were a process of discovery, to be honest (the Widow of Kursk in particular arrived in my head the moment she arrived on the page – I’m a little scared I was simply channelling her into this world…). Karina told me as much about herself as I needed, and I found that unknowability really potent, and I leaned into it. I don’t think characters have any responsibility to reveal all of themselves, to the writer or the reader. Mystery is a weapon. Hopefully she fascinates. 

TB: This is your debut novel, and previously you’ve had much success for writing amongst other things for SFX magazine, so do you think that grounding helped in your transition to writing fiction?

NS: All those deadlines have helped to build up essential muscles when it comes to gator-wrestling a blank screen – and my day job’s certainly given me the chance to talk to creators I admire (it was an interview with Neil Gaiman, back in 2001, that actually convinced me I needed to try writing a book of my own). But I’ve always written fiction – loved writing stories as a kid and had some Doctor Who stories published in fanzines as a teenager. In a way journalism was the diversion in the career path I saw for myself. I enjoy that as much as the novel-writing, luckily, so happy to keep doing both, even if I wish there were more hours in the day sometimes… 

TB: Finally, assuming this is the beginning of a series in the world of Christopher Winter, can you give us any hints as to what dark forces he may end up facing next?

NS: Yes, there’s another Christopher Winter adventure on the way. I don’t want to say too much about it just yet – mystery is a weapon! – but whereas The War in the Dark is cold and gloomy the next one is full of Mediterranean heat and sun, as well as blood and bones, of course. And the forces ranged against Winter certainly expand the scope of the supernatural threat.

The War in the Dark is now available from Titan Books.

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