Sunday, 6 December 2020

Darker crimes to chill you this Christmas

Well, we’re finally into December, so we can at last start talking all things Christmas again. Not that I haven’t been doing this already, I freely admit. But it occurred to me the other day that there is plenty of Christmas stuff to be discussed where my main novel of 2020, ONE EYE OPEN, is concerned (even though it was published during the summer). It’s set over Christmas after all, and packed with midwinter predicaments.

You’ll hopefully recall that it was a hardcase crime thriller, and in keeping with that dark and dangerous tone, I’ll also today be reviewing the rather excellent THE DARK INSIDE by Rod Reynolds, the fictionalisation of a very dramatic real-life murder case, which makes for a superb suspense novel.

If you’re only here for the Rod Reynolds review, I’ve got no problem with that. Just zoom on down to the lower end of today’s post, and you’ll find it, as always, in the Thrillers, Chillers section. If, on the other hand, you’ve got a bit more time, we can first chat a little about …

A Christmas caper

ONE EYE OPEN, my first crime novel for Orion, was published last August, and while the average man on the street might assume this meant it was going to be a summer read (and I wouldn’t argue with that as I consider it a real page-flipper), it is set during a deep-frozen Christmas and so ought to be a damn good read for the festive season too.

The story itself takes place between mid-December and early January, the centrepiece of it a well-planned but brutal armed robbery, which occurs on Christmas Eve itself. It all happens in the Essex and Suffolk countryside, a part of Britain perhaps not renowned for its plunges into Arctic weather, though this is exactly what occurs on this occasion, and it focusses not on some ace detective or specialist Major Investigation unit, but on a Traffic officer, Lynda Hagen, who, as well as having various lesser enquiries to put to bed, must also look after her demanding family during the Christmas season and take care of her husband, who’s still not fully recovered from a nervous breakdown.

The last thing she really needs, of course, is to be dragged into the world of organised crime, multi-million pound heists and gangland shootings.

I’m not going to say any more about ONE EYE OPEN, but will add that, at the time of this writing, it has over 500 glowing reviews on Amazon (but is still there, waiting for more 😉), and reiterate that it all happens during the Yuletide season, so it’s filled with Christmas trees, decorations, icicles and snow.

TV adaptations

It’s every writer’s dream that his or her latest book should get snapped up for film or TV. The advantages of this speak for themselves.  And yet, even though the plethora of new TV channels we now enjoy, and the movie-making budgets and standards that have been brought to television production generally means that projects are being gobbled up left, right and centre, to make a successful sale of this sort – at least, from a novelist’s point of view – is still rarer than rocking horse doo-dah.

We’ve all sold options. Oh, yes. Options are great. An option means that a production company owns the sole rights to adapting your work for a specified period of time. Usually it’s a year, or a couple of years. What it does NOT mean is that this adaptation is actually going to happen.

There is a cynical world-view among many authors that their work is often only acquired for these short periods of time simply to prevent anyone else getting their hands on it. I mean, the intent to make the damn thing will always be there, but the wherewithal could easily be lacking (and you can’t afford to get too uppity about that, because … well, you try persuading someone to give you a couple of million quid to make a movie!). On the basis of this intent, though, we writers – once we’ve done our diligence on the would-be producer, and assuming the price isn’t completely derisory – tend to go with it.

Anyway, after all that, and despite sounding a little world-weary, I am more than happy to announce that an option taken out previously on my Lucy Clayburn novels – STRANGERS, SHADOWS and STOLEN – has been renewed. Again, despite my warning tone in the paragraphs above, I’m very happy with this. I’ve done my research and the company involved are top-notch and the people manning it all quality professionals with impressive track-records. I feel very comfortable that, for the next few months at least, the books are in safe hands.

Big names

As a footnote, I’ve had quite a bit of fun with this recently, the production unit sending me their proposed lists of actors to approach for the various parts. 

Suffice to say that the key roles in the Lucy Clayburn stories are, firstly, Lucy herself, a 30-something police detective in Manchester, who has fought hard to overcome a drastic mistake she made as a junior, when she got one of her supervisors shot, but who now rides a Ducati and isn’t afraid to mix it with the bad guys (though she isn’t Wonderwoman; Lucy’s a tough, blue-collar lass, but I never envisaged her as one of those unlikely heroines who can knock six guys out with a single punch). 

Secondly, we have Lucy’s dad, Frank McCracken, a Manchester
crime-boss in his fifties, who’s done it all including murder and robbery. Lucy didn’t even know about his existence until late in the first book, STRANGERS, her single-parent mum, Cora Clayburn, having always mendaciously maintained that she never knew who Lucy’s father was. As you can imagine, once the twosome become aware of each other, there are some serious clashes of loyalties.

Some of the names and faces on the actor lists were stunning. For page after page, it was a case of “Wow, if we could only get her … or him!’ Most exciting of all, when the male list arrived at my house, the one actor, who I can’t name yet, but who I’d thought from inception would be perfect to play Frank, was sitting at the very top. Great minds think alike, or what?

Of course, I reiterate that none of this is guaranteed to happen as yet. But I think it’s safe to say that these are exciting times if you’re a fan of these particular books.

Audible delights

In another item of late news, I can report that the Audible adaptations of my three Christmas books this year are well on their way. 

SPARROWHAWK (the story of a Victorian-era soldier who, on his release from the debtors’ prison in the midst of a truly terrible winter, faces a life-or-death struggle against a supernatural foe that can draw on all the darkest legends of the festive season) is already out there in paperback, ebook and on Audible, just waiting for you to acquire it.

The other two, THE CHRISTMAS YOU DESERVE and IN A DEEP, DARK DECEMBER, which are collections of festive horror stories and novellas, are also now available in paperback and on Kindle. I’ve recently signed off on the Audible versions of these two, which, as with SPARROWHAWK, are amazingly well-performed by actor Greg Patmore, but given that this is the festive season and a lot of stuff is due out about now (especially as so many people will be staying in this year!), these latter two may arrive a little late. If that happens – and it’s only an ‘if’ at this stage – I wouldn’t expect anyone to want to listen to Christmas ghost stories once Christmas is over. But if that’s the case, never fear … you’ll still be able to get them next year.

Apologies about this uncertainty, by the way, as I have been enthusiastically drumming up interest in these Audibles over the last few weeks.


 An ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller, horror and sci-fi) – both old and new – that I have recently read and enjoyed. I’ll endeavour to keep the SPOILERS to a minimum; there will certainly be no given-away denouements or exposed twists-in-the-tail, but by the definition of the word ‘review’, I’m going to be talking about these books in more than just thumbnail detail, extolling the aspects that I particularly enjoyed (I’ll outline the plot first, and follow it with my opinions) … so I guess if you’d rather not know anything at all about these pieces of work in advance of reading them yourself, then these particular posts will not be your thing.

by Rod Reynolds (2015)

We commence proceedings in the newsroom of the The Examiner newspaper, New York, in 1946, where we meet long-serving newshound, Charlie Yates. At first glance, Yates is an unimpressive specimen, who, though he has fifteen years experience investigating and writing about crime, was injured out of the armed forces by a road accident before he could be sent overseas (which some folk feel worked out rather well for him), and now has anger-management issues that have put paid to his marriage and regularly enrage his equally ill-tempered boss.

After one particular incident in the office, Yates, his career hanging by a thread, is sent south to Texarkana, the twin cities that straddle the Texas-Arkansas border, where a series of gruesome fatal attacks are underway, young couples accosted by a hooded gunman in remote areas and shot, the women then sexually mutilated.

It’s a lurid case, the killer referred to locally as ‘the Phantom Slayer’, but Yates still considers it small potatoes and is infuriated both to have been landed with such a story in the first place and to have been sent out here to what he considers the boondocks, to cover it.

Ironically, the boondocks are equally unhappy to have him.

Though he puts up in the Mason Hotel, along with the rest of the press pack (because despite Yates’ frustration, this is fast turning into a big story!), he isn’t received well at the Chronicle, the local newspaper, which is owned by the same company as the Examiner and thus somewhere he’d expected to find allies. Neighbourhood crime reporter, Jimmy Robinson, something of an unstable character himself, views their guest as an arrogant interloper, while Chronicle editor, McGaffney, is less overtly hostile but evidently discomforted to have a big-city crime writer on the patch.

Despite being advised that Texarkana is not New York and that these murders actually mean something because almost everyone in town has been personally affected by them, Yates goes in feet-first, asking bullish questions of all and sundry, which brings him into near-immediate conflict with lead-investigator Sheriff Horace Bailey and his enforcer-in-chief, the ultra-menacing Lieutenant Jack Sherman, who warns him off subtly but in no uncertain terms.

Yates’ suggestion that the killer may be a deranged ex-GI gains no traction with anyone, even though the town is full of such potential suspects, hordes of demobbed men, many still trigger-happy, filling the town’s bars and flocking to work at nearby Red River Arsenal, a military supply depot where their expertise would be valued, but which is currently in the process of being acquired by the town’s most prominent citizen, millionaire Winfield Calloway, throwing its future into the balance.

As the body-count mounts, the town turning ever more volatile and the dogged Yates’ relationship with both the local press and police becoming so strained that the latter soon go from warning him to making open threats, he inveigles his way into the hospital to speak to 17-year-old Alice Anderson, thus far the only survivor of a Phantom attack. He finds her upset and confused, claiming no real memory of what happened but insisting that the police have been leaning on her, trying to put words into her mouth. Afterwards, when the cops release an official statement that Alice Anderson has described her assailant as a black man, Yates knows it for a lie.

Not long after this, a huge reward is offered, which Yates realises is going to lead to violence and intimidation against the local black community, while the real culprit is not only going unpunished but, for some reason, not even being pursued … maybe is even being protected.

Unsure who to trust, he tries to win the confidence of Lizzie Anderson, Alice’s attractive and adversarial older sister. However, Lizzie’s a woman of secrets too, and initially doesn’t seem to like him, never mind trust him. But then, bewilderingly, Alice disappears from the hospital, apparently without trace.

Against an ever-deepening mystery and in an atmosphere of simmering violence, Lizzie has no option but to turn to Charlie Yates, and Yates to her. Both feel the entire town is now ranged against them, including the killer who strikes by moonlight, the one they call the Phantom …

The ‘Moonlight Murders’ that occurred in Texarkana in 1946 were a dreadful series of actual events, which saw five people killed and three others seriously wounded at the hands of an unknown killer dubbed ‘the Phantom’ because of the terrifying white hood he always wore. It’s one of the the most fascinating aspects of The Dark Inside that Rod Reynolds follows this grim, real-life history very closely indeed, even using the genuine locations of murder scenes like Spring Lake Park and Red River Army Depot. That said, he changes the names of the victims and the law enforcement officials charged with finding justice for them, and of course, purely for dramatic purposes, adds heaps of local corruption, whereas in reality there was no suggestion of such.

Of course, this isn’t the first time the legendary crime spree has been fictionalised.

In 1976, Charles Pierce made the notorious exploitation movie, The Town that Dreaded Sundown, which also told the tale but took liberties with many of the facts, suggesting, for instance, that one of the Phantom’s female victims was killed with a musical instrument, which definitely never happened and yet thanks to the movie became canon among teenagers interested in the case. Despite being vividly done, The Town That Dreaded Sundown barely rates a mention among worldwide horror movie fans these days, but it so plucked at the nerve strings of Texarkana residents that, even now, it regularly receives late-night open air screenings in Spring Lake Park.

The upshot of this (not to mention the fact that sundry other books have been written about the case, both fictional and non-fictional) is that it was never very likely Rod Reynolds would be accused of showing bad taste by dramatising these astonishing events, which I personally am more than happy about because I found The Dark Inside a thoroughly engrossing piece of grown-up thriller fiction, populated by completely convincing characters and speeding through a series of hairpin twists and turns that constantly threw me and left me eager to know what was coming next. To call this one a page-turner is not just hyperbole.

Charlie Yates makes for an excellent lead. He’s now gone on to star in two other novels, Black Night Falling and Cold Desert Sky, but this is his first appearance and it’s a powerful one, though the author set himself no small task birthing a hero who is flawed for all the wrong reasons: a guy deeply embarrassed and self-recriminating about his cowardice during World War Two, frustrated about his failures as a husband and a man, and when he first arrives in Texarkana, self-centred, aimless and drifting. Uninspired and mostly unrepentant, about the only thing Yates has got going for him is his nose for a story, but it is this that will lead him on a path to redemption. And that’s our main narrative arc.

Yes, there is a brutal murderer to unmask, but The Dark Inside is also about a man at his lowest ebb frantically trying to claw his way back to the light. And he only gets there incrementally, continually making bad choices and letting himself down, though that renders Yates all the more interesting to me. He’s the hero, of course, so you never quite give up on him. It’s no surprise that by the end of this book, the reader is one hundred percent behind the guy in his quest to put things right.

His relationship with Lizzie Anderson is a big part of this. Our heroine is hardly a femme fatale, beautiful and spirited, yes, but in her own way flawed as well as being tired and depressed. On top of that, she’s not at all attracted to Yates in the early stages of the narrative, and is eventually only drawn to him because it seems as if he’s the only guy she can trust.

Equally multi-layered is Rod Reynolds’ depiction of the book’s main villains, Horace Bailey and Jack Sherman in particular, both of whom hark back to that earlier age when ‘men were men’, even though in reality, as shown here, that could be quite nasty given the propensity of men like that for explosive violence. Bailey and Sherman are two characters you’re certain would kill you as soon as look at you if it suited their purpose. You only need to read The Dark Inside to be very thankful for the much more answerable law-enforcement agencies that we have today.

Other characters are also clearly drawn, Richard Davis, the town punk, and Winfield Calloway, Texarkana’s overweening patriarch (the sort of character Ed Begley would have played back in the ’50s and ’60s), providing much more than simple window-dressing, while local journalists Robinson and McGaffney are expertly cast as redneck newspaper men at least as concerned about protecting their hick town’s almost non-existent reputation as in breaking good stories.

I’ve never visited Texarkana, so I can’t comment on how authentically Rod Reynolds captures the atmosphere of the place, but in The Dark Inside he gives us a tremendously vivid picture of a functioning but self-absorbed community at a difficult time in the history of the American South: before the Civil Rights movement, with women and blacks still second class citizens, but with poverty and social problems never far from anyone’s door, and now with GIs flooding home from foreign battlefields, many traumatised, and of course all matters of dispute still deferred to the town’s ruling elite no matter how thuggish and inexperienced they may be.

This is even more remarkable because author Rod Reynolds is a Brit. So, all the more credit to him for producing this hardboiled slice of classic Southern Noir, in which the crimes are heinous, the atmosphere crackles and the characters bounce off each other like human ninepins.

The Dark Inside is a pitch-perfect period thriller, tense, claustrophobic and sweaty. It gets my very strongest recommendation.

I’m hoping that, with its taut tone and bad attitude and with the recent repopularisation of the Southern Gothic crime subgenre by such recent TV hits as True Detective and The Devil All the Time, it won’t be long before The Dark Inside hits our screens. So now, as usual, in eager anticipation of such a pleasure, I’m going to try and cast this beast. No one will listen to me, of course, but you must admit, it’s a fun exercise.

Charlie Yates – Adam Scott
Lizzie Anderson – Dakota Johnson
Sheriff Horace Bailey – Robert Patrick
Lieutenant Jack Sherman – Glenn Fleshler
Richard Davis – Jack Quaid
Winfield Calloway – Brett Cullen
Jimmy Robinson – Tommy Flanagan
McGaffney – Rainn Wilson

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