Cold Desert Sky by Rod Reynolds

Review published on July 5, 2018.

Cold Desert Sky is a solid chunk of Americana in the finest hard-boiled traditions, which is an achievement because Reynolds is a British author. This is noir nirvana; there’s a cynical tone, terse prose, cool banter and a lone wolf investigator, washed up, on the edge and looking for redemption. All the glitz and the glamour, the clean shiny surfaces of the post-war era are just a veneer masking the grime, this is the underbelly of the American dream.

December, 1946, Los Angeles: Charlie Yates and his wife, Lizzie, are hiding out in motels and hotels in Los Angeles. Charlie is working for the Pacific Journal again but keeping a low profile, he can’t afford to be seen. This is the third Charlie Yates mystery and if you read the second, Black Night Falling, you’ll know he fell foul of legendary gangster Benjamin ‘Bugsy’ Siegel. Another man might have left town with Lizzie, only Charlie is driven. He’s desperate to follow up on a story about two missing young women. Everyone comes to this town to make it in the film business, most fail and some vanish without a trace; he doesn’t want that for these women. Nancy Hill and Julie Desjardins, if those are their real names, have been gone nine days. It matters to Charlie, he feels responsible for the dead people in his past, maybe this is a chance at atonement? Lizzie is struggling to get him to see reason, he would protect her with his life but he’s careless of his own safety. He takes a chance on a daytime meeting in a downtown joint, ‘Wilts’, with a gambler who knows the kind of people who might know where girls go when they disappear. Whitey Lufkins is only too happy to take Charlie’s money for keeping his ear to the ground, but he’s not bugged by a conscience. A couple of Seigel’s thugs pick him up as he leaves. He just has time to phone and warn his wife to run.

Bugsy and his right hand man, Moe Rosenberg, are waiting for Charlie at a club on Sunset Boulevard. After a mock execution showing Bugsy has a strange sense of humour, he ropes Charlie into a blackmail racket. A gay ‘B’ movie star is being squeezed for $10,000. No way is Charlie doing this, but how will he stay alive if he doesn’t? Reunited with Lizzie, Charlie still won’t lay off the investigation into the two girls. Eventually, a lead from the L.A. Times about the body of a young woman turning up on wasteland in Las Vegas takes Charlie east. Bugsy Seigel is opening a new casino/hotel and the gambling paradise is about to be born.

Charlie had the feeling he was being followed, he assumed it was Bugsy, but the Feds also want Charlie to help them take down Seigel. Its dangerous, looking into the girls’ disappearance/death is dangerous, defying Bugsy Seigel is dangerous. Charlie doesn’t only have himself to think about, there’s Lizzie too. Getting out from under and staying alive will be some trick.

Very little is as it first appears. Charlie has to figure out what it is that Seigel really wants. He needs to know if the Feds can be trusted? Is there a connection to the missing young women? It all keeps you guessing.

Reynolds is pitch perfect on place and time; the fringes of Hollywood, the lives of people who don’t make and the void they fall into, even the early burgeoning of Vegas, rings true. Characters are rounded and complex, and that with the setting makes the novel feel right. I love the way real people and events slip in and out of the action. I know I said ‘lone wolf’, and it’s true, but the relationship between Charlie and Lizzie gives a different dynamic to the story, effecting the way things work out. Plenty of thrills and spills along the way in this pacy noir. An interview with Rod Reynolds is published with this review on BookNoir and it’s a cracker. I hope we see a lot more of Charlie Yates in the future.

Paul Burke 5/4

Cold Desert Sky by Rod Reynolds
Faber & Faber 9780571334711 pbk Jul 2018

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