The Dark Inside | Rod Reynolds | 2015, Pb 2016 | Faber & Faber | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book
It is 1946 and New York reporter Charlie Yates is in disgrace. His war cut short by an accident at home, Charlie has to endure the derision and scorn of colleagues who have returned from the Front as heroes. It’s thought best that Charlie should be sent far away, somewhere he can be forgotten. His destination is Texarcana, a small town on the border between Texas and Arkansas that has a murder count far higher than the town’s population size would suggest. Young courting couples are being murdered at a popular dating spot. The local police seem no closer to finding the killer – hardly surprising considering their reluctance to accept that the brutal crimes are linked. When Charlie arrives he is supposed to liaise with the local reporters and police to find the hidden story behind the murders. But the first thing he sees on his arrival is a dog pissing on the town sign. That says it all.
Charlie has his hands full from the outset. Texarcana is a town that the Wild West never left. A stranger is regarded with suspicion at best; with violence at worst. And Charlie is doing an awful lot of stirring. One of the victims survived, the only one to live who saw the killer’s face, but Alice is in no state to talk about what happened. Her sister Lizzie immediately attaches herself to Charlie as her only hope for truth. But the further Charlie digs, the more the townspeople of Texarcana close ranks and the more dangerous the situation becomes. With his New York office heckling from afar, the local reporters and police openly obstructive and hostile, and the body count rising, Charlie Yates comes to learn that he has more to lose than just his job.
It was quite a surprise to me to learn that Rod Reynolds is, in fact, a British author and not an American. The Dark Inside richly evokes small town America in the 1940s while its style is a fine and strong expression of Southern Noir. This is a dark tale indeed with the demons not just out there walking the streets of Texarcana but also haunting the mind of Charlie Yates every day and night of his life in this unhappy town. Charlie is our narrator and he invites us into his head – not all at once but slowly as we get to know him. It seems that he is under attack from every side, psychologically as well as physically, but he wrestles to keep order by working through the clues of the murders. In some ways, the murders even seem like a welcome distraction to Charlie from some of his blackest thoughts.
While it’s Charlie we get to know the most, there are some strong characters in this novel and our feelings towards some of them fluctuate. The war has done its damage, every bit as much as the murderer has, and most people in Texarcana have a vulnerable spot that, once irritated, is liable to explode. Unfortunately, Charlie is just the man to do the irritating. But although some of the figures are downright bad, Rod Reynolds skilfully doesn’t allow us to lose sympathy with them all. Although for the few, there can be no saving graces.
The mystery is a good one but The Dark Inside is at its best with Charlie’s fine narration and with the novel’s mood, so firmly tied to the town of Texarcana itself. I read the book on dark camping nights and it seemed so appropriate, listening to the owls while reading by torchlight. The Dark Inside is a dark, moody and sinister thriller and it is delicious.