In the spring of 1946, the small town of Texarkana on the border of Texas and Arkansas was rocked by a series of unsolved, brutal killings which became known as the Texarkana Moonlight Murders.
The slaying of courting couples in remote locations, exactly three weeks apart, sent the town into a state of panic throughout that long summer. Stores sold out of guns and ammunition, and at night the town was locked down while police patrolled streets and local neighbourhoods.
In his gripping, perfectly paced debut novel, London-born Rod Reynolds revisits the scene of those terrifying crimes to imagine an insular Deep South town, still recovering from the effects of war, packed with demob happy GIs and now held in a vice-like grip of fear and suspicion.
It proves an inspired and compelling backdrop, although the real joy of Reynolds’ stunning thriller lies as much in its devilishly clever attention to detail as in the absorbing blend of murder, mystery and simmering menace.
In fact, the evocation of time and place, and the portrayal of a town under mental siege, is so breathtakingly authentic that one could be persuaded that this is Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe territory reborn.
‘Three days travel and a million miles from New York,’ disgraced crime reporter Charlie Yates knows his latest job in faraway Texarkana is ‘a bullshit assignment’ but an incident at work has left his news editor eager to see Charlie out of the way… maybe for good.
Once The Examiner’s top man, Charlie’s life is on a fast-track, downward slope. His marriage has ‘gone to hell’ and a bad accident has left him with serious anger issues.
But what seems at first like a small town murder story to big city boy Charlie – two young couples attacked in local lovers’ lanes leaving three of them dead – soon turns into something far bigger when, within days of his arrival, another courting couple are mercilessly slaughtered.
Charlie finds himself lured deeper into the case by the beautiful, fiery Lizzie Anderson, sister of one of the victims, 17-year-old Alice, the only person to have survived the attacks and seen the killer up close.
But as he starts to make his own investigations into the murders, Charlie senses an ‘undercurrent’ in the town and discovers that the not-so-good folk of Texarkana have secrets that they want to keep hidden at all costs.
There are people out there who are protecting the killer and as he investigates further, Charlie’s determination to uncover the truth could cost him more than just his job.
There is a seductive, filmic quality to The Dark Inside… a slow-burning, spine-tingling tale punctuated by bursts of shocking violence and an all-pervasive air of malignant distrust that bleeds poison into a town teetering constantly on the edge of paranoia.
Reynolds’ incisive, razor-sharp characterisation is undoubtedly the driving force behind this exceptionally powerful debut. In Charlie, we have the classic outsider… a man battling both his own demons and a traumatised community which is inherently prejudiced, suspicious of strangers and awash with murky secrets.
Drawn inexorably and unrelentingly into a fascinating web of intrigue and deception, readers will find there can be no turning back until the last page has turned.
Stylish, assured and perceptive, The Dark Inside is a remarkable first novel.
(Faber, paperback, £12.99)