It’s Private Eye July at BookPage! This month, we’re celebrating the sinister side of fiction with the year’s best mysteries and thrillers. Look for the Private Eye July magnifying glass for a dose of murder, espionage and all those creepy neighbors with even creepier secrets.
No doubt there are a multitude of mystery readers out there who love digging into classic spy stories from the golden age of espionage. Filled with ritzy postwar ballrooms, foggy alleyways and the smell of gunpowder, these stories conjure up boatloads of thrilling nostalgia, one swishing trench coat at a time. But have you ever imagined a Cold War that plays out in both this life and the afterlife? Or contemplated world powers vying for demonic runes in their quest for influence? Both of these supernatural mysteries excel at taking a familiar genre and time period and augmenting them with just enough otherworldly elements to make each page feel new and exciting.
In Hannu Rajaniemi’s Summerland, it’s 1938, and England and Russia are poised at the brink of war. Each has deployed a large number of spies to survey and counter the other’s covert operations around the world. Rachel White, an English operative, learns from a Russian asset that there’s a mole in British intelligence. After clashing with her superiors and being thrown back to a desk job, she takes it upon herself to bring him to justice, even if it’s off the record. But there’s a problem. Peter Bloom, the Russian traitor, doesn’t live on Earth. In fact, he doesn’t “live” at all. Peter is already dead and working as a spy in Summerland, an ethereal city filled with recently deceased souls. How do you expose a mole who isn’t even alive?
What’s so great about Rajeniemi’s writing is how much sympathy he engenders for both Rachel and Peter. This split-perspective novel had me nonplussed at first, as I assumed there would be a “right” and “wrong” spelled out for the reader. This wasn’t the case at all. Peter’s painful past and his dedication to the mission of communism make him a sympathetic figure. Rachel has a great deal of pain, too, as a woman in a man’s world, as wife to a husband with PTSD and as someone who just wants justice. Summerland also poses questions about the cost of knowing the afterlife exists. What is a life really worth if we knew there is somewhere else to go? Contemplative, exciting and utterly imaginative, it’s a wild ride for readers who want some sci-fi twists in their thrillers.
In Nick Setchfield’s dark, lightning-quick The War in the Dark, an English spy named Christopher Winter encounters a demon living inside a human. After battling the monster, being attacked by his dead partner and betrayed by his wife, he goes rogue, trying to understand what his colleague Malcolm tells him—there’s an entirely other war being fought here. The world powers are waging an occult war over the runes of power, which are ancient words that drive these supernatural beings. With the tenuous aid of a Russian KGB agent named Karina, Winter must try to navigate Cold War politics and avert the destruction caused by unholy, recently awakened forces.
The War in the Dark is a tight, high-intensity spook-fest that never wavers from its vision. Setchfield is a master at choosing just the right word to remind us where we are and how we should feel. The reader may rarely get a chance to breathe, but this breathlessness is invigorating. Set in 1963, The War in the Dark uses a more traditional noir aesthetic than the post-WWI Summerland as a foundation for its supernatural elements. And these elements are unequivocally creepy. Exploding demons, sacrificial bleeding wheels and faceless visions feel right at home in the fantasy genre. But Winter’s perspective grounds us with his dry wit and spy’s tenacity. Seekers of supernatural thrillers will find both familiar and entirely new elements in Setchfield’s deftly written, atmospheric spy caper.