It’s always an interesting reading experience seeing an author run with the facts of a true unsolved crime, and carefully construct their own interpretation of who may have been responsible, and their psychological motivation for seemingly senseless attacks. The Dark Inside from debut author Rod Reynolds, is based loosely on the events surrounding The Texarkana Moonlight Murders of 1946, where young couples were singled out at a local courting spot and brutally attacked. The Texarkana Phantom, as the killer was dubbed, killed five people and assaulted three more, but evaded apprehension, with the killings stopping as quickly as they had begun. With this as the central premise for the story, Reynolds takes us on an atmospheric, clever, and entirely plausible trip into a small community racked by fear and suspicion.
The real stand out character of the piece is Charlie Yates, the beleaguered and harried journalist who finds himself sent on a fool’s mission by his eminently dislikeable boss, and feeling forced to demonstrate his instinctive journalist’s curiosity and nous in order to save his job in New York. Yates finds himself at odds with pretty much everyone he encounters as an interloper and suspicious of not only his motives but by what he uncovers below the surface of the more ‘respectable’ folk of Texarkana. Reynolds bestows Yates with a real core of morality, unusual in itself for a press journalist, and I like the way his character pivots between outspoken arrogance to moments of extreme self doubt and emotional vulnerability, shaped by events in his personal life. As he navigates his way around the local press, law enforcement officers, and the mayor in search of the killer, and evading the less than honourable members of these factions, Yates needs his wits about him to get to the truth. I was slightly less convinced by the relationship he forms with Lizzie, as it seemed a little forced in the overall narrative, but his essential moral fibre, doggedness, and sometimes foolhardy actions with which his character is balanced, made up for this slight concern.
Reynolds is to be admired for taking a leap of faith, especially as a debut novelist, to write something so outside of his normal experience, and equally as a Brit setting his book across the water in a community where the ghosts of this crime still loom in the shared consciousness. As an outsider looking in, and this being one of my ‘favourite’ unsolved crime mysteries, the setting and atmosphere of Texarkana felt incredibly authentic, and as I listened to a selection of Texas blues artists whilst reading this, the cadence and rhythm of the book worked perfectly. With this book comparisons have been made to Daniel Woodrell and Tom Franklin, and I would say that in terms of the meticulous setting and period atmosphere this is justified. Add in the easy style of dialogue, reminiscent of an author such as Ace Atkins, and this book will tick many boxes for the American crime fiction fan. Reynold’s careful construction of a viable and believable conclusion to this famous case also holds water. Obviously it would be remiss of me to go to deeply into the culprit(s) but, suffice to say, Reynolds has not made the mistake of going for a too outlandish conclusion at odds with how the story has built up, which was gratifying to see, and which outweighed the slightly (in my opinion) ‘chocolate box’ ending.
All in all an intelligent and atmospheric recreation of some very dark and brutal events indeed, and more than happy to see that a sequel is in the offing. A highly recommended debut.
(With thanks to Faber for the reading copy of The Dark Inside)