Smoke swirled around the room, and the gritty smell of gunpowder cloyed in my nose and throat.
—Reynolds, Rod. The Dark Inside
Just finished The Dark Inside by a Londoner Rod Reynolds, with a “successful career in advertising, working as a media buyer, who decided to get serious about writing”. Looking for a new crime novel, and originally hailing from Louisiana and Texas I began tracing various venues for something different. I found it in this noirish work set in that in-between city, Texarkana. A city drifting between Texas and Arkansas that seems to sit on the border between hell and paradise. It’s the sort of place you’d love to visit, but not if there is a murderer on the loose.
I’d decided to go in blind on this one, only acknowledging that Rod had received some good reviews. I was pleasantly surprised that he’d set this novel in the late 1940’s post-war era. East Texas is home to the likes of Joe R. Lansdale whose crime fiction has garnered praise for years. Works like The Bottoms, Leather Maiden, Freeze Burn and the like have honed into the edgy world of dark, along with his series of Hap and Leonard. So I was already quickly enchanted to enter this local having lived outside Shreveport, LA as a child on my grandparents old depression era farm.
As I began reading we are introduced to a reporter from New York City named Charlie Yates. A man whose seen his share of tough luck already. A man with a shadow hanging over him from a car wreck that left him crippled and unable to participate in WWII. In the beginning of the novel there is a hint that things are not quite right with this picture, that we’re not given all the details up front. What we do learn is that Charlie’s lost his wife, his job is on the rocks, and he has a real bad temper about who and what he’s become. What that is we are not privy too.
It’s this flawed character trait that haunts Charlie, and gets him in trouble with other reporters at the Examiner. He’d spent years building up his credibility as a first rate reporter to the point of being on the best paper in the country. But now his boss hates him and can’t wait to get rid of him. So after Charlie throws a typewriter at the bosses corner office breaking the glass because of another reporters wild crack he’s forced to become a roving reporter, and is sent down by vehicle to cover a homicide that seems to be making waves in the national press.
Back when Charlie was in the Army within two weeks of being shipped out to war he’s in a car wreck that leaves his legs busted up. Needless to say he’s accused by two officers that were behind him of purposely causing the wreck. Charlie himself can’t say because he’s temporarily come under amnesia which leaves a blank spot in his mind about the whole affair. His wife, daughter of a rich man, discovers the tales and confronts him, but Charlies can’t remember. It’s this uncertainty about his actions that will haunt the novel till the end. He will question whether they are all right as to his honor: is he or is he not a coward. It’s this one question that drives him, angers him and tempts him to question both himself and his past. And, it also forces him to confront that darkness inside and challenge its power over his life.
Once he hits Texarkana that’s when the fun begins. He’s been given the name of a reporter, one Jimmy Robinson to speak to when he hits town. He finds Jimmy at the local paper The Chronicle:
I glanced around the newsroom again, seeing maybe thirty people. The Chronicle was one of dozens of newspapers owned by the Greenbeck Corporation, but had almost nothing in common with the Examiner. The outfit in Texarkana was small, everyone on one floor; the whole operation would have fit into the canteen back home. There was a single row of re-write men, telephone receivers jammed against one ear as they scribbled on notepads, and the rest of the desks were only half-filled – the beat writers out on the street. Size aside, it was just like every other newspaper outfit I ever saw – cramped by necessity, every man within shouting distance of the rest of the room, the different departments arranged in rows. A factory assembly line, churning out newspapers instead of cars. The editor’s door was ajar now, and a man with a thick moustache was watching me. Everyone else was business as usual – typewriters and telephone calls, a weird intensity, like they didn’t want to make eye contact. It felt like they were talking about me, snatched whispers – but I nixed the thought, put it down to being today’s feature attraction. The stranger from the big city. I buttoned my coat. ‘Robinson, wait up.’
The story itself is tightly paced, almost to a perfect pitch; as if this work had been edited and reedited many times to get every detail down to perfection. The novel has it all, intrigue, duplicitous characters, a complete whodunit that keeps you guess right up to the last few chapters when it all comes together; without a deus ex machina to tidy things up. Instead we are given slow burn of small town complications that Charlie Yates, the bad boy from upstate New York City has to menouver through. The first of which is Jimmy Johnson himself whose supposed to be the guy about town to help him, but instead throws the first loop at Charlie before things have hardly gotten off the ground.
Jimmy takes Yates out to where two young people were killed. Once they arrive Jimmy proceeds to pull a gun on Charlie and force him to the spot where the murders took place. At this point we don’t know if he plans on killing him of has other plans:
I backed up, watched his hands. I felt trapped, the trees a cage.
‘This ain’t a story, Yates.’ He hacked his throat clear, spat on the floor between us.
‘This ain’t filler for you sum’bitches to read over your eggs in the morning.’
‘I never meant to—’
‘Some goddamn madman killed our kin like dogs and he’s still out there. How the hell you think that makes us feel?’ His face verged on purple. His eyes glistened with tears.
‘I never meant to disrespect them, Jimmy.’
He lifted the gun to his temple and pulled the trigger two, three, four times. All clicks. ‘Don’t worry, it’s empty.’
He turned and walked back to the car.
I’d love to give you all the juicy details on every character, but that would spoil the pleasure of you reading this fine book. Charlie’s confronted by corrupt cops, a young simpleton (or so he thinks), a pair of twin sisters (one he begins to fall for), a crooked old rich man with a crazy son, an ex army man who might or might not be the killer. It’s a world of contradictions that seem to lead Charlie Yates down into the pit of a world of violence and small town corruption that will expose him to the darkest aspects of his own past and self. All through the novel we see the thread of Charlie Yates own failures and corruptions being confronted by the dark haunted worlds of this small town in-between worlds. Charlie in the end will confront the darkness inside himself as much as that outside in the world. Vulnerable, fragile, alone Charlie’s flaws are off-set by a sense of decency and integrity; a certain loyalty to the victims and the innocents. A man in the end who gives a shit, and even when confronted by the possibility of his own death still seeks to find justice.
But that’s enough to tease you, so now I’ll just send you over where you can find The Dark Inside and read it yourself: here!