Book Chat: Blood on the Tracks

Colorado author, Barbara Nickless, delivers the audience intensity and literary satisfaction in her debut novel, Blood on the Tracks. Intensity: applied deftly, like a clock set to screws tightening meticulously and relentlessly. Literary: with the designer’s eye for beautiful language to animate the hearts and motives of characters.

I must make a confession before jumping into Ms. Nickless’ novel. Crime-Thriller fiction is something I typically avoid. I believe novels ought to draw a reader through on the quality of its prose. To marry prose with “whodunnit” incentive and the Rube-goldbergian trickeration of opening three new questions for every one answered, strikes me as relying on clever tricks as opposed to quality writing. But, perhaps that’s a little too stuffy and self-righteous. Better I get over myself.

Good news: with Blood on the Tracks, we take pleasure in both. Denver railroad police officer, Agent Sydney Parnell, is an Iraq war veteran who is thrown into solving a sadistic murder. Ms. Nickless does not care for a squeamish audience, and…she makes everything personal.

It’s easy to forget that the whole novel takes place over a few days. The fact that it does, argues eloquently on behalf of Ms. Nickless’ handling of prose. She is a brilliant storyteller. And her main character, Sydney Parnell, is fiercely interesting and refreshing.

The murdered victim is family, and through family, Agent Parnell is pulled inevitably into her past, both to her childhood and her Iraq combat experience. It is the kind of story that must invite ghosts…and a self-medication of alcohol and drugs.

For me, this is a bright take on the female hero, where quite often, we are given a main character who despite the blows of combat, always seems to be a bit impervious or never fully imperiled. Something extraordinary and invisible, magical, seems to be granted by the author that will remove the female hero from danger. But that is not the case with Blood on the Tracks. Our character is quite broken…and quite strong. She feels the hammer of her pain swing from the inside and the outside.

Agent Parnell doesn’t have that authorial Deus ex machina excuse. I’m so impressed by Ms. Nickless’ handling of her. Our hero meets the “boys,” (good and bad), on their level—exchanging bullets, fists, kicks, quips, barbs—and gets her ass-kicking in while also taking a few. Her body, throughout the novel, is a chronicle of every encounter, and the author remembers this as she tells her tale. We feel the bruises as they add up. And we root—Hard!—for Agent Parnell. Especially so, as the gruesome murder invites the prospect of neo-Nazis.

But, it’s not that simple. It would be nice, and clean, to stick it to the Nazis…and we do get the satisfaction of killing a few! Ms. Nickless, however, keeps her story screwed to the mud and snow through Agent Parnell’s family ties and the haunting damage from Iraq. It really turns out, that a crime of this nature, involves all three.

The book ends where it should; Agent Parnell catches up to her killer, but we’re left with those three big questions the author can’t answer until the following novel. Which leads me to my next point.

The second book in the series, Dead Stop, comes out October 3rd. That’s next Tuesday for those, like me, who can’t count. Now is the perfect time to catch up and read Blood on the Tracks. It won’t take long…I promise. Go on, pick it up. After three pages, put it down! I dare you.

Almagre Artist/Editor,
John Lewis

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