I’m thrilled to be taking part in the blog tour for Cold Desert Sky by Rod Reynolds, which was published yesterday by Faber. Thank you to Lauren Nicoll for inviting me and for a copy of the book. I’m spoiling you today with a review and an interview with Rod! But first, let’s give you the blurb for the third Charlie Yates book.
No one wanted to say it to me, that the girls were dead. But I knew.
Late 1946 and Charlie Yates and his wife Lizzie have returned to Los Angeles, trying to stay anonymous in the city of angels.
But when Yates, back in his old job at the Pacific Journal, becomes obsessed by the disappearance of two aspiring Hollywood starlets, Nancy Hill and Julie Desjardins, he finds it leads him right back to his worst fear: legendary Mob boss Benjamin ‘Bugsy’ Siegel, a man he once crossed, and whose shadow he can’t shake.
As events move from LA to the burgeoning Palace of Sin in the desert, Las Vegas – where Siegel is preparing to open his new Hotel Casino, The Flamingo – Rod Reynolds once again shows his skill at evoking time and place. With Charlie caught between the FBI and the mob, can he possibly see who is playing who, and find out what really happened to the two girls?
If ever there was a man who was ‘cruisin’ for a bruisin’’, it’s Charlie Yates, reporter. He just can’t leave things alone. Haunted by other girls he couldn’t save, Charlie agrees to look for two young starlets who have disappeared in Los Angeles. But he can’t make too much fuss about it as he doesn’t want to attract the attention of mob chief, Bugsy Steigel. He’s none too happy about Charlie’s last escapade in Hot Springs which affected his business badly. Very badly. It’s not long before Charlie is in deep and his poor wife, Lizzie, gets dragged into the whole mess as well. How far will Charlie go to find the girls?
Once more, Rod Reynolds transports us back to late 1940s America and setting is key to the story. After the claustrophobic small town atmosphere of Texarkana in The Dark Inside and Hot Springs in Black Night Falling, the action moves to Hollywood, Los Angeles – the place where everyone wants to be. But the bright lights are a façade. Huge and impersonal, no one seems to blink when someone gets killed or disappears. There’s a beautiful paragraph where even Charlie doubts whether he should be looking for the girls –
‘I’d built a picture of the two girls as innocents, but whatever the truth of what happened to them, talk of reefer-rovers and private casting calls was a reminder they were strangers to me. It was unsettling, making me question the assumptions I’d made about their disappearance. Wonder whether I’d built a castle in the sand for my own ends – one that’d already washed away, and I was the only one who couldn’t see it.’
A lead takes Charlie and Lizzie to Las Vegas, a town built for the workers on the Hoover Dam. Small compared to LA but not afraid to punch above its own weight –
‘The route to the Clark County Sheriff’s Department carried us through downtown Las Vegas – a small grid of streets packed solid with drinking clubs, hotels and gambling halls – often all in the same building. Neon signs danced in a blitz of colour, lit even in the daytime. If I’d expected a western version of Hot Springs, I was off; this was bigger and bolder – Broadway without class, pried out of Manhattan and laid down in the desert.’
There is such fluidity to Rod Reynolds’ style. There’s nothing false or forced. If you didn’t know better you’d think he was American. And even then, it takes great skill to accurately portray 1940s America. As with the other two books, there’s a thread of truth running through the story adding to the authenticity. Bugsy Steigel really was a mobster who built a casino in Las Vegas. But don’t look him up just yet. Read Cold Desert Sky first for Rod Reynolds’ take on him.
Character wise, Charlie is still Charlie. He’s still not afraid to ask the wrong questions to the wrong people at the wrong time, usually resulting in a beating. Having said that, he is slightly more tempered and cautious in this book due to the presence of his wife, Lizzie. Personally, I would have liked to have seen her developed more as I think she has a lot more to give.
I don’t know what plans Rod has for Charlie Yates but the way this has been left, I reckon there could be another story for Charlie to chase down. Although whether Lizzie will let him is another matter.
Welcome! Rod, for those who haven’t read your other books, The Dark Inside and Black Night Falling, can you tell us a bit about them?
Hi Joy, thanks so much for having me on your blog!
My first book, The Dark Inside, is based on a real life serial killer case from 1946, known as the Texarkana Moonlight Murders. In the book, broken down journalist Charlie Yates is sent from NYC to Texarkana, a small town on the Texas-Arkansas border, to cover the story of a killer who’s been targeting young couples late at night. Charlie’s been sent there as a punishment, so he’s got a chip on his shoulder and, initially, no interest in the case. But when the murders keep happening, and the police are powerless to stop it, Charlie finds himself caught in a nightmare – and it very quickly becomes the only story that matters to him.
In the second book, Black Night Falling, Charlie travels back to Arkansas at the request of an acquaintance he considered an enemy. Charlie’s been rebuilding his life in California, trying to put the events of Texarkana behind him – but when his acquaintance tells him the murders never really finished, he finds he can’t let it go. Plunged into a mob town, where everyone’s on the take, Charlie’s acquaintance turns up dead and more people are dying. And now the things he knows make Charlie a target – and his only way out is to catch the killer.
Where did the character of Charlie Yates come from and why did you make him a reporter?
The idea for the character came from something I read researching the facts of the real life case, that the Times (of London) had sent someone to Texarkana to cover the story in 1946. I liked the idea of how out of place he would have felt, how alien Texarkana would have been to him at that time. Eventually I decided not to make my character English, so I figured sending him from NYC would be almost the same thing – they were totally different worlds.
In terms of why a reporter – I needed a character who could go around sticking his nose in and who would have a reason to get involved in trying to catch the killer, but I didn’t want to make him a cop, because he’d have to be local (which would ruin some of the ‘stranger in a strange town’ vibe) and also because I’m wasn’t really interested in trying to get police procedure authentically correct. I also didn’t want to make him a private detective because that’s a bit of a cliché, and I didn’t think that credible for the time/place. So a reporter fitted the bill nicely – particularly because it meant he wasn’t going to be constrained by police regs or anything like that.
I like the idea of a journalist snooping around and Charlie has integrity which, for me, makes him really stand out.
I’m glad that comes across. Charlie’s imperfect – by design – and he’s angrier and more disappointed with himself than anyone else could ever be (and he makes rash or foolish decisions because of it), but the one thing he clings to is his moral code.
I’ve been looking back at our last Q&A and it was August 2016! Now, I know that the publishing world moves slowly but did this book take longer to write?
This book took me about the same time to write as the first two, it’s was just a case of my publisher finding the right slot for it in their schedule. I actually completed the book in March 2017!
I have to admit that the little I know about Las Vegas I’ve learnt from the TV programme CSI but since reading Cold Desert Sky, I’ve looked a bit more at the history of the place and it’s really fascinating – a town built initially for the workers on the Hoover Dam. What drew you to Las Vegas as a setting?
I’ve been going to Las Vegas on and off for 20 years, and I’ve always found it an interesting place with an – ahem – colourful history, so I’d been thinking vaguely about setting a book during the city’s early days for years.
I’ve stayed at the Flamingo Hotel a few times, and I knew Bugsy Siegel was involved in its construction, but when I found out it was built right around the time the first two books were set, I realised I could quite easily take the Charlie Yates series there – especially as Siegel had strong connections with Hot Springs, where Black Night Falling is set.
I’d encourage anyone to go check it out. I wasn’t interested in gambling (and wasn’t old enough to buy a beer!) the first few times I went there, and I still found it fascinating. There’s something about the scale – you just can’t help walking around gawping.
I bet! I’ve been to LA (well, more like Disneyland than LA itself) but not Las Vegas. The fact that it’s not even 100 years old makes it intriguing.
Now. Lizzie. I think having her around really changed the dynamic of the story. Charlie isn’t so free to go charging off because he’s always got her to think about. Was this a deliberate ploy? If you write another Charlie Yates, I would love to see her developed further. I think she could be quite kickass.
Lizzie is really fun, but also probably the hardest, character to write. She’s smart beyond her years, strong willed and takes no rubbish from anyone. She’s also the voice of reason and common sense that Charlie needs to hear at times.
It was definitely a conscious decision to have her feature more in the story – partly because readers had been asking for more Lizzie, and partly because it gives me more scope to pile on the peril. At the same time, it is a bit of a balancing act, in that I’m conscious of not having Lizzie do things that simply wouldn’t be credible for a young woman in that period, but part of that is perception; the most revered and tenacious crime reporter in LA in the first half of the 20th century was a woman. So there’s definitely scope to have her feature more in future…
Yes, balancing the historical period with today’s ideas must be difficult.
There are factual elements in your novels with mentions of real-life murders and gangsters. Do you think this helps with the authenticity?
To some extent, yes, but it’s not a magic bullet. If I’m going to include real-life characters, I want to be as true to them as I can, and that presents its own challenges. The same with factual elements – I don’t think you can take too many liberties with the facts, so that can constrain your plotting somewhat. But when you get it right, it definitely adds an extra layer of realism to the book.
I agree. You’re not doing a retelling or even a reimagining but weaving fact with fiction.
Yes, exactly that.
You help to run First Monday Crime. How important is it to you as an author to take part in panels and meet your readers?
I think panels and events are really important. Some authors find them nerve-wracking, and I understand why, but generally I really enjoy doing them. When you spend 9-12 months locked away with your computer writing a book, it’s a pleasure to be able to spend some time talking about it, to an engaged audience. Panels can help expand your readership, but more than that, I think they’re a good way to give something back to readers who are already fans. I’m always happy to chat to people who’ve gone to the trouble of coming to see me talk about my work – I think it’s a privilege to have people show an interest like that.
I love going to panels and book festivals. And I really enjoy hearing authors speak about how their books came to be.
What’s next? Will there be another Charlie Yates?
Before I answer that, I think it’s now tradition for me to turn this around and ask you a question. So – re. panels, do you find them useful, in terms of tips or inspiration for your own writing? Or are they just for entertainment (or, at least, hopefully…)?
Darn, you remembered! It’s a mixture. I guess it all depends on what questions are asked. First Monday Crime is generally more entertainment. Often at festivals there are specific themes so then it might be more pertinent to what I’m writing. For example, at Killer Women last year there was a panel on publishing which gave lots of great tips and the opportunity to ask an agent a question.
Of course I remembered!
I think some of the specific panels on publishing are really useful – I wish I’d known about them, or had the access to them, the first time I tried submitting a book. I made every mistake under the sun (although that’s not the only reason that book never saw the light of day…!)
As for what’s next for me… In my mind, Cold Desert Sky is the end of a loose trilogy, and that was always my plan. But I do want Charlie to continue and there is a synopsis for book 4 – but if and when that gets written is still TBC.
In the meantime, I’ve written something entirely different, which I’ve been thinking about for a couple of years. It was really weird to write something new – it’s been five years since I wrote anything not featuring Charlie – but also a lot of fun. I’m working on that now with my agent, so watch this space…
Thanks again for having me on, and for the great questions. Look forward to doing it again!
Thanks for answering! I look forward to hearing more about this intriguing new book.
You can find out more about Rod, his books and order Cold Desert Sky here.
Rod Reynolds was born in London and, after a successful career in advertising, working as a media buyer, he completed City University’s Crime Writing Masters degree; the rights to his debut novel, THE DARK INSIDE, were acquired by Faber even before he graduated. The sequel, BLACK NIGHT FALLING, is out now, and the third book in the Charlie Yates series, COLD DESERT SKY, publishes in July 2018. Rod lives in London with his wife and two daughters