You don’t often meet a protagonist as unlikeable as the one in Rod Reynolds’ smart, 1946-set debut The Dark Inside. Charlie Yates is a New York journalist with a temper, one serious enough to result in his editor exiling him to the Texas-Arkansas border to cover a murder case. Anger is one of Yates’ defining characteristics; by the time we meet him his rages have already resulted in his wife leaving him, and as the novel progresses we learn more about where this fury has come from. Its source is intimately connected with a car accident that saw Yates avoid active service during World War Two. The event hangs like a dark cloud over him, and ensures that those he comes into contact with immediately question his motives and treat him with suspicion and disdain.
When Yates arrives in the town of Texarkana, three young people have been killed and a fourth is critically injured in hospital. All are victims of a killer who preys on courting couples, and as Yates investigates further he finds himself increasingly drawn to Lizzie, sister of the survivor. As Yates uncovers links between the army, local industry and the police force, all begin to appear implicated in the murders. To his credit, and despite being warned off on numerous occasions (including a particularly vicious beating) Yates continues to piece the story together, eventually reaching the point where that is all that matters. By its end the novel is less about a journalist writing a story, and much more about a man striving to rediscover his self-respect.
Reynolds does a great job of evoking small-town America in the 1940s. The fact that Texarkana sits right on the border of two states is wholly appropriate given the ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ nature of the town that becomes more apparent as the book progresses. Small-town respectability slowly gives way to something much more unpleasant underneath, and Yates’ outsider status gives him the desire to bring these dark secrets out into the light, whatever the cost to him personally.
One particularly chilling section I enjoyed is towards the end of the book, with Yates searching an empty house late at night. It slowly becomes apparent that something particularly gruesome has taken place here, Yates’ torch beam roving over each room and picking out more clues from this eerie and deserted house. When I read this bit it was also fast approaching midnight; I was alone in the living room, everyone else having gone to bed. Every gust of wind or creak of the house had me looking up from the page, wondering if I had a late night visitor about to approach the door – or window. The power of the imagination is a curious (and not always entirely welcome) thing…
I enjoyed The Dark Inside a great deal. It’s written in a bold style which matches Yates’ character extremely well, and is all the more remarkable given that this is Reynolds’ first book. His most surprising trick was to ensure that I had a grudging respect for Charlie Yates by the book’s end, despite how much I disliked him at its beginning. That’s not an easy trick to pull off, however experienced a novelist you are. The fact that Rod Reynolds does it so successfully surely means that he is an author worth watching.