Fresh Blood

Name: Rod Reynolds

Title of Book: The Dark Inside

'Reynolds is a huge talent in the making.'

The year is 1946, the place is an outback town called Texarkana. Folks lead a simple life but this small community has been rocked by a number of brutal murders that has shattered the tranquillity of this quiet town. New York reporter, Charlie Yates has been dispatched to the back of beyond by his disgruntled boss as punishment for his erratic behaviour. Charlie is incensed he has been exiled to such a dead water place to report some crimes the nationals have no interest in.

As Charlie’s personal life continues to unravel, he digs deeper and deeper and begins to peel back conspiracies within this charming community. A sign on entering the town states: ‘Texarkana, USA is twice as nice’. Charlie is beginning to feel that sign is mighty misleading as he faces aggression from the offset, ultimately leading to violence and threats to his life. Any man with sense would have jumped back in his car and headed out of town, but Charlie meets the fiery Lizzie, sister to Alice who is the only one to have survived and seen her killer up close. Soon Charlie is finding that the roots of deception and decay run deep in to the past and that corruption is rife. Many people have their lives and reputation at stake – and will kill a lowlife reporter if it means the truth is left underground.

I have read my fair share of Chandler, Goodis et al. but also dipped in to the plethora of ‘wannabe’ Noir books written since. Some become a mere pastiche and some feel as though the writer has swallowed a Chandler book and regurgitated it word for word.

Thankfully, this cannot be said for Rod Reynold’s debut, ‘The Dark Inside’. As I read the first page, I did worry slightly if we were heading off in the same direction as mentioned above, but my worries were short-lived as Reynolds rapidly found his own voice – or more to the point Yates’ - and his story was galloping away smoothly and at a pace.

Charlie Yates isn’t the warmest of characters, but Reynolds did an admirable job of making me rout for him when the odds were against him. Nobody in Texarkana is particularly friendly, but Reynolds manages to give each an individual voice which pushed me to want to know more as the drama unfolded. Reynolds is very good at characterisation and I really loved Charlie’s back story which gave him a depth that made him even more tangible.

Reynolds litters his plot with plenty of red herrings and even Yates is surprised at the end when things take a twist that even he couldn’t foresee. There is a happy ending for Yates, but Reynolds leaves that flavour in the air that Yates is one of those people who have it good and then ends up throwing it all away. We shall see if I am right or wrong on that point. ‘The Dark Inside’ is an extremely powerful novel. Reynolds’ writing is sublime and assured making the book feel as though written by someone with years of experience, rather than a debut author. I will continue to watch this author with interest. Reynolds is a huge talent in the making.

Reviewed by: C.S.

CrimeSquad Rating

Fresh Blood Questionnaire

1) You were born and still live in London. Instead of using the London landscape your novel is set in Texas. Not only that, but you have placed your story in 1946. Why did you set yourself such a challenge?
I stumbled across the real-life story of the Texarkana Moonlight Murders and, as soon as I did, I knew I wanted to write a novel about it. The facts of the case gripped me and, as tragic as the murders were, the details sparked so many ideas I wanted to develop. The killings themselves were brutal and terrifying - young couples attacked at night on isolated lovers' lanes - but the atmosphere, the sheer terror that they provoked in the town, struck me as the perfect backdrop for a crime novel. In addition, all sorts of rumours swirled at the time: suggestions of institutional corruption, accusations the police were protecting the killer, confusion over whether all the attacks were linked - all of which provided incredibly fertile ground to work with. Almost immediately, I had a sense of the atmosphere I wanted to evoke, and the voice I wanted to use to tell the story.

I decided from the start that I was going to write a fictional re-imagining of the murders, for various reasons, but that made me determined to set the story in Texarkana in 1946, so that I retained that grounding in real life. I can't deny I was a little daunted at first - both by the period and by the setting - but I've always been a fan of American writing and culture generally, and particularly books set in that era, so if nothing else, I knew I'd enjoy writing it at least.
2) Charlie Yates is a New York reporter who has been banished to Texarkana due to past misdeeds. Why did you decide on a reporter as your main protagonist?
There were three main reasons: the first was that I didn't want my protagonist to be constrained by rules or procedures in the way a cop would be. I wanted Charlie to have the freedom to carry out his investigation in any way he saw fit - partly because I liked the idea of writing a morally compromised hack who obeyed only his own conscience (even as he battled it), and partly because it offered more dramatic possibilities that way.

Secondly, and related to the above, making him a crime reporter made him vulnerable in the way that a cop or PI wouldn't be. His job puts him in horrible and dark situations, but not violent ones, so he's really out of his depth when he finds himself almost immediately under physical threat in Texarkana.

Thirdly, Charlie was partly inspired by a reference I saw that The (London) Times sent a reporter to cover the killings. I couldn't imagine how alien a place it must have felt at the time, and I decided then I wanted my protagonist to be a reporter from distant parts, so that the reader would experience the strange and oppressive atmosphere of Texarkana in the same way my character did.
3) The novel touches on topics such as racism and police intimidation within a small community. Watching recent events in the U.S. between police and the black community, do you feel things have got any better or are these out-dated attitudes in danger of coming to the fore within different communities?
I'm not sure I'm qualified to answer this. At the time ‘The Dark Inside’ is set, the notion of a black president would have been inconceivable. The last recorded lynching in the state of Texas took place in Texarkana, just four years earlier. Segregation endured in the south until well into the 1960s. In that context, it's clear that progress has been made, on a national level, in the last seventy years.

However, the recent incidents you mention are shocking and deeply troubling, and demonstrate that whatever progress has been made, the situation is still imperfect. I don't think I'm best placed to comment as to whether the everyday experience for black communities is significantly better than in days past.
4) Your book has tones of Raymond Chandler and David Goodis. Are you a fan of the Pulp crime fiction of the forties and was this deliberate?
I take that as a huge compliment as I am a big fan of forties and fifties pulp fiction, and Chandler in particular. Of all those noir greats, I'm always amazed at how fresh his work reads (whereas Hammett's work, which I also enjoy, reads more of its time, I feel). I also particularly like Jim Thompson and Ross MacDonald. David Goodis has been on my radar for a long time, too, but sad to say, I haven't got around to his books yet.

My biggest single influence is James Ellroy, and given how much Chandler influenced him, it's fair to say that 'Big Ray' has always loomed in my writing, both directly and indirectly. However, I made the mistake of trying to write like Ellroy when I first started out, and quickly discovered that it's impossible to ape the great stylists without coming off as a bad copy. In addition, developing a unique and personal voice is probably the biggest single factor in creating a compelling novel, so I was keen to ensure I did that.

With that said, there are certainly aspects of both men's books that I did deliberately try to incorporate, among them: dense plotting, a convincing evocation of time and place, a dark and oppressive atmosphere, and a complex protagonist who was deeply flawed, but sympathetic nonetheless (the last being more common to Ellroy). I'm certainly very pleased if any of their influences are evident in my book, even in a small way, as they are two of the all time greats.
5) Will we be hearing more from Charlie Yates or are you venturing to other pastures?
Yes - Charlie Yates will be back. Book two is a direct sequel to ‘The Dark Inside’, taking place six months after. It is set in a town called Hot Springs, which is not far from Texarkana but has an incredible and fascinatingly dark history of its own. As with ‘The Dark Inside’, I've drawn on certain real life elements in creating the plot.

At the start of the book, Charlie finds he's compelled to go back to Arkansas by a man he never thought he'd see again - a man from Texarkana. On arrival, things immediately go bad and Charlie finds himself in the middle of a hellish spiral of murder, corruption and betrayal. As he fights to find the truth that is his only escape, he discovers the nightmares of his recent past may not be done with him yet...
6) You completed the City University’s two year MA in crime writing. Did you feel it necessary to do this course to become a writer? What do you feel you gained from the course and how did it help towards your ultimate goal of having your book published? And was it difficult becoming a student with a family?
Taking each part in turn:

Taking the MA was the right move for me at the time. I was looking for something to motivate me and set a structure for my writing and also to give me the tools and training to be a better writer - and that's absolutely what I got. I don't feel, however, that it is a necessary step for everyone. I strongly believe that writing is like any other skill - it improves through study, practice, dedication and tuition. But an MA is not the only way to do that - for some it will be through reading 'How To' books, attending panels and festivals, distance learning courses, or just years of practice. It's a question of finding the method that works for the individual.

I don’t agree that 'You can't teach writing.' The best athletes in the world all have coaches, and the biggest corporations constantly train staff at all levels. I'm not saying that everyone can be taught to write to the level required for publication - but in the environment I studied in, working with successful, established authors who were willing to share the benefit of their expertise - any aspiring author should be able to improve their craft.

The main thing I gained from taking the MA was the benefit of working so closely with established authors. Not only was their feedback invaluable in helping me shape the manuscript that became ‘The Dark Inside’, the positive reactions my writing garnered - right from the start - gave me the confidence that I was potentially capable of writing at the level required to one day be published. That's a hugely motivating feeling.

Furthermore, the final part of the course was very industry-focused and really helped me start to network, and to hone the way I went about submitting to agents. I'd written a novel previously, several years prior, and submitted it widely; it was interesting to realise some of the obvious mistakes I'd made. In addition, my tutors were kind enough to mention my work to some of the agents and editors they dealt with, and it definitely helped having a little bit of buzz about the book in the industry even before I started approaching agents.

My wife and I didn't find out we were expecting our first child until a month or so before the course started - and by that point, I was committed. Then, it transpired that most of the regular contact sessions - lectures, seminars, etc., - took place in the first two terms, just before our daughter was born. That's not to say there weren't sacrifices after that - I was working full time as well, so there were a lot of late nights, full-on weekends, and frantic writing sessions during naptimes - but it was manageable. A few months either way and it could have been a very different story.
7) What are the top three crime novels that have made a lasting impression on you and you would wish to have on a deserted island?
‘The Cold Six Thousand’ by James Ellroy. I've already mentioned my Ellroy fandom; this was the first book of his I read and it blew me away. The power of the language, the style, the staccato prose, the speed - at first I had no idea what I was reading. I couldn't keep up. I was dazzled and mesmerised.

I read it in my early twenties and it re-ignited my passion for reading. It's the book that, more than any other, inspired me to be a writer. It's a divisive book, largely because of the style, and I understand why there are plenty of people who couldn't get on with it. But the effect it had on me at the time (and on subsequent re-reads) has never been matched. It felt like the author grabbed me by the throat, threw me down and screamed, 'LISTEN TO THIS' for page after page. And I loved it.

‘The Good German’ by Joseph Kanon. This was the first book I read where the setting felt as important and as alive as any of the characters. Kanon evokes Berlin in the immediate aftermath of WW2 with such clarity and skill that it's impossible not to feel its impact. The recurring motif of 'Berlin - always something worse' is haunting and powerful, and each time it's deployed, somehow lulls the reader into believing that - this time - what we've just read is the worst thing happening in the city - even as the author tells us it's not (and later shows us something worse). It's majestic writing.

I was also immediately struck by the dialogue. Kanon writes fragmented dialogue with such power and subtlety, often moving seamlessly between a character's thoughts and words, and is the master of the unsaid and the implied. It flows naturally and, to employ a cliché, it truly leaps off the page. I've wanted to emulate it ever since.

‘The Neon Rain’ by James Lee Burke. Another book I read in my early twenties, but which had a very different effect. I didn't appreciate the quality of Burke's prose in the early days, and it wasn't even the main character, Robicheaux, who grabbed me. The power of this book for me was in his sidekick, Clete Purcel. Violent, alcoholic, unreliable, uncontrollable - but at the same time funny, loyal, and the only man you'd want next to you in a fight. Burke's creation showed me that heroes didn't have to be good guys - they just had to be ever so slightly better than the bad guys (as long as they had style and adhered to their own code. See also: Bondurant, Pete!)

This book was important to me because it opened the door both to the world of Southern crime/noir, which I greatly enjoy, and to the rest of Burke's works. Later, as my taste matured, I came to understand and appreciate the real brilliance of his lyrical prose.