Q & A #51 – Barbara Nickless, “Blood on the Tracks”

blood-on-the-tracksQuite simply, Barb Nickless’ first book Blood on the Tracks is blowing up.

Go ahead and check that big online book retailer; I’ll wait here.

The e-book was released Sept. 1 and has already garnered over 900 reviews.

900!

Note the five-stars. Go ahead and scan a few of those—or read all 900. You’ll get the gist. Blood on the Tracks is hitting a chord. It was the number one selling e-book for days and days—weeks? I’m not sure. And today (Oct. 1) is the release date for the book book, the print version.

The success couldn’t happen to a nicer person. I know Barb through Rocky Mountain Mystery Writers of America (what a great group) and she was kind enough to ask me to write an advance blurb for Blood on the Tracks last spring.

I finally got around to reading it a couple months later. I was immediately sorry it had taken me so long.

For the record, I’d like it noted that I sent Barb that blurb on August 22—before her book sales went crazy. Here’s what I wrote:Blood on the Tracks is a bullet train of action. It’s one part mystery and two parts thriller with a compelling protagonist leading the charge toward a knock-out finish. The internal demons of one Sidney Rose Parnell are as gripping as the external monster she’s chasing around Colorado. You will long remember this spectacular debut novel.”

A full review follows.

First, Barb was kind enough to answer a few questions by email:

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Question:  Where did the whole idea of Blood on the Tracks come from? How long have been working on this story?

Barbara Nickless: I wanted to write a story set in a gritty milieu. When I learned that railway police have the same jurisprudence as traditional police, I knew I had what I wanted: an unusual detective in a little-explored world. I had the idea before 2012, but it took having my house burn down in a wildfire to get me moving on this project. I worked on this book for two years while recreating a home for my family.

Question: I have to say the structure is unusual. And effective. The story starts with a thriller quality to it (chasing a train) and then turns into a mystery and back into an action-packed finish.  Where is the line, do you think, between thriller and mystery?  What was your intent starting out?

Barbara Nickless: I never really thought about whether I was writing a thriller or a mystery. I wrote the story that interested me. When people asked, I said I was writing a police procedural, which was always my intent. But the thriller aspect seemed to go hand-in-hand with the world I was creating. The murder that kicks off my novel calls for sleuthing skills; but action, even violent action, is intertwined with the characters and their situations and hanging around 400-ton locomotives.

Question: Okay, Railroad Police Special Agent Sydney Rose Parnell. How did you do all the train research? And all of Sidney’s backstory as a war vet?  And her K9 partner Clyde? Hobo camps? It seems like this story must have required many research challenges.

Barbara Nickless: For me, writing is an excuse to take my insatiable curiosity and turn it into something concrete. This book started with my interest in hobos and expanded from there to the Marines and PTSD. Then, as I got to work, I kept getting diverted by bright, shiny research objects. So in went the military working dog, and Mortuary Affairs, and the what it is like to go to war. Honestly, it’s a good thing I wasn’t thinking about SETI (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) while I worked on this novel.

Question: Obviously, Sydney Rose is heavily impacted by her experiences during the war. How did you land on her specific role in the military? And research it?

nickless-bw-17-lr-editBarbara Nickless: I knew I wanted Sydney to be a Marine because I wanted to address what our troops have gone through in multiple theaters of war. When I heard Terry Gross interview Jessica Goodell on NPR’s Fresh Air, I knew what Sydney’s job would be: serving in the unit that processes the dead. Ms. Goodell, the author of the wonderful book Shade it Black, struggled with a difficult job, dealt with being a woman in a traditionally male environment, and then had to try to leave it all behind when she redeployed. I had so much admiration and respect for what she’d done in Iraq, and with her strength and determination when she returned stateside. Once I knew about Mortuary Affairs, I followed up with additional research.

Question: Did you know the entire plot before you waded in to writing? Or did you tackle it organically?

Barbara Nickless: Organically. Definitely. I’d love to be a plotter. But I’m too impatient to get to the writing. I had my characters and my ending, and that was it. After the first draft, I had a train wreck, if you’ll pardon the pun. It was a lot of work to try and transform the book into something with good plot bones.

Question: Like every other relationship in her life (father, brother, etc.) Sydney Rose’s relationship with her dog is strained at the outset, too. How did you go about thinking about their bond and how it would change?

Barbara Nickless: I wanted Sydney to be pretty isolated at the beginning of the novel. Cut off from normal relationships, including that with her K9 partner. An island, as John Dunne would say. I figured if she felt that way, why not Clyde? He’d lost two handlers in Iraq; I figured he probably wasn’t much into relationships, either. When they finally learn to trust each other—that’s when they can start to grow and heal.

Question:  Okay, one-word question: Wiggins?  How did you settle on Wiggins as a place to wrap things up? Did you have fun writing about the Front Range? Denver and around? Don’t you live further south? Why not set Blood on the Tracks closer to home?

Barbara Nickless: Poor Wiggins. I was entirely unfair with that town. My choice was purely a practical one—I needed a locale that fit with the timing of the story. Writing about Denver and elsewhere was another research challenge, as I live in Colorado Springs. But in Colorado, the big freight railroads operate out of Denver, so my detective had to be there, too.

Question: This is your first novel but has already won awards.  Can you explain its history? And you’ve been writing short stories before this and have been published in the UK. How did that come about? Are you still writing short stories?

Barbara Nickless: Writers work long hours by themselves, often with little feedback. Writing contests such as the Daphne du Maurier Award of Excellence, the Zebulon Fiction contest, and the Colorado Gold are great chances for writers to get feedback and encouragement. I entered the Daphne and the Claymore (Killer Nashville) for that reason. As for short story writing—I once belonged to a critique group in which we agreed to write a short story a week. Talk about honing your writing skills and learning to work under pressure! When some of those stories sold here and in the UK, it was a terrific boost. But it’s been years since I wrote a short story. I talk too much to be a good short story writer.

Question: What writers inspire you?

Barbara Nickless: There are so many! John Hart, Jeffery Deaver, Dennis Lehane, John le Carre, James Lee Burke, Tim Johnston, and Mo Hayder. To start. 

Question: Is Sydney Rose coming back? What’s next?

Barbara Nickless: Sydney and Clyde will be back next summer in Dead Stop.

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Barbara Nickless’ website
Facebook
On Twitter: @barbaranickless

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Review

Blood on the Tracks starts out as a thriller, morphs into a mystery, and turns back again into a movie-ready action-packed finish. But if you mention “movie,” that sounds like this story hits the usual marks and follows the normal arcs. It doesn’t. It’s messy–in a good way–because it feels so driven by character. It’s ambitious and sprawling. The story swoops from big picture (hey, stop that train!) to intimate. It’s both violent and raw. Blood on the Tracks is about the ghosts of war, racism, class, rank, a harrowing search for identity and, of course, truth and justice. It rolls all those topics, and more, into a multi-faceted manhunt, at first, and clue-finding mystery.

Railroad Police Special Agent Sydney Rose Parnell is one complex and interesting character. She sees dead people, for one thing. But don’t think paranormal. Uh, hardly. These are “skills” she doesn’t necessarily want.  She’s haunted for many reasons, including the fact that she worked in corpse retrieval in Iraq. She was also involved in a situation covering up certain atrocities over there.

The plot involves the murder of young woman who was known for her kindness to hobos and drifters. She is murdered in vicious fashion. The victim had been “sliced and diced.” The killer scrawled  bloody hobo symbols nearby so Sydney and her K9 partner Clyde are pulled into the investigation and soon working to stop a northbound freight train as they hunt for the killer. Clyde is a great character, too. He’s got his own darkness. Something is broken inside him, too. They are a good pair.

But this is Sydney’s story—all Sydney. She is very much a loner. She had a “ragged” childhood, effectively without parents. Her father abandoned the family. Her mother murdered her new boyfriend. By age thirteen, “after a long period of furious, wounded rebellions,” Sydney Rose thought she had buried her demons “and set out to prove she was nothing like them.”  She joined the Marines and later the railway police “out of courage” and tried to find a new identity, but kept realizing that the angry thirteen-year-old had never quite disappeared.

Sydney Rose wants nothing to do with murder and mayhem, but can’t avoid getting sucked into this one. She also has railroads and diesel in her blood, and this case goes straight to her heart. “I just wanted to be a regular twenty-seven-year-old woman, holding down a decent job, enrolled at the community college, and studying whatever caught my interest while I tried to figure out my life. Maybe later I’d want something more, but all I cared about right now were the simple things—my grandmother and my dog and a roof over our heads and not losing all of that because of something that went down in another life on the other side of the world.”

After Sydney Rose leads a big scene where they stop and search a freight train bound from Denver north toward Ford Collins. Sydney and the cops all think they’ve got their man—or do they? The guy in custody is Tucker Rhodes and here’s where Blood on the Tracks gets layered and rich. Rhodes is a war vet, too, and he’s dealing with the same mental struggles and a “war-broken heart.” Do you think there might not be something fresh about a character struggling with PTSD? Think again.

Tucker seems like the obvious culprit but based on the number of pages left to read we know there are some problems coming. Those problems start rushing at Sydney in waves. The hunt leads to big-picture conspiracies and into the deadly lair of white supremacists and ultimately into a terrifying confrontation with a predator during a snowstorm in Wiggins. In the end, there is blood on the tracks and many other places, too.

Sydney Rose is a terrific character. Her demons feel real. She broods about them but keeps pressing forward, too. She quotes Hemingway and Shakespeare (not Bob Dylan?), but doesn’t overdo it. Nickless no doubt put a ton of research into finding just the right credible details about railway cops and freight trains and all the flashbacks to Iraq, but nothing bogs this story down. Nickless gives Blood on the Tracks a chugging, relentless appeal. You will long remember this spectacular debut, especially after they make the movie.

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6 responses to “Q & A #51 – Barbara Nickless, “Blood on the Tracks”

  1. marilyn mcfadden

    Our ‘Cops and Gumshoes’ book club reviews one US and one foreign book every two months — both are of the ‘police procedural’ genre. We’ve made selections that (1) introduce a detective / cop in who (2) subsequently becomes the (usually) flawed hero of (3) a successful series. The Sidney Rose Parnell first novel fit our specifications; Nickless joins our list of favorites. Among others, we’ve read Ian Rankin (Knots & Crosses, Rebus), Jussi Adler-Olsen (Department Q, Keeper of Lost Causes), Jo Nesbo (The Bat, Harry Hole), Peter May (The Blackhouse Trilogy), Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo (Martin Beck, The Laughing Policeman), and Mankell (Wallander).
    Don’t know if you noticed but Nickless is the first female author (except for Maj Sjovall) and we rejected a number of others before we chose Blood on The Tracks. I’m an ex-Prosecutor and my husband ex-LAPD and internal affairs consultant. We’re a little picky. This is the first female detective who rang true as a cop on the job with an authentic history first and the rest second. We loved Sidney dogg too, and his back story. Although we’ve no experience with Sidney’s profession, whatta man,whatta man. Gives insight on a special partnership.
    Anyway, Nickless has created / described a hell of a woman detective (although I suspect Sidney more or less invented herself), written a damn good book and described a dog we all fell in love with. I think nearly everyone in our group plans to order the next Sidney Rose book so we can help create the (3) criteria of a ‘successful series.’

  2. Marilyn, I saw this and had to respond! I am so honored that your group chose Blood on the Tracks. And I am especially honored that an ex-Prosecutor and former LAPD officer found my book worthy. And to be included with the likes of Rankin and Nesbo … well, I am speechless. (And that’s a hard thing to do to a writer. 🙂 ) Thanks for speaking out for my book and my characters.

  3. marilyn mcfadden

    Cops and Gumshoes did indeed find your book ‘Worthy’ — Come on, you must have closed the last edit with a righteous smile. Or is it that you never know? You’ve a fan club here, regardless. My husband would like to send you a book he wrote (it’s already published, etc. , actually he’s in the process of doing a third and goes to hide in his office leaving me to wonder whether he’s working for fun or profit. No ulterior motive or favor here, just sharing). He was as excited as I that you would take the time to respond to my email.

    I particularly liked (in your Blood on the Tracks) that I didn’t catch even one false note. For example, we like NCIS – even after Weatherly left – but always have a laugh at their international, intergalactic jurisdiction. What a budget that office has. Sooooo often, it’s just roll my eyes at the major procedural / police flaws necessary to push the plot along.

    A ‘thing’ that our book club focused on immediately was Sydney’s weaknesses / character flaws i.e., Harry Hole (OMG who even lets that man carry a weapon?), Rebus (whose first novel if you remember was replete with PTSD), Wallander ( Let’s not even start, though at the end at least we could point to Alzheimers; can one drink one’s way there?). All the males have alcohol, drug, divorce, financial woes which usually seem to be brought upon by themselves.

    We forgave Sydney for any little idiosyncrasies of character (Except she kept wandering out into the elements with no back; I understand, cell phone coverage) . It does occur to me that she bears a little resemblance to Ree Dolly of Winter’s Bone see Daniel Woodrell’s 2006 novel. Sydney has the same cultural and family ties (not ties, more like knots); and, I dunno, just a lack of girliness in approaching solutions. Spare a little look at the first of the Lewis trilogies by Peter May, same feelings, experiences, very real.

    So, thanks again for the note.
    Marilyn McFadden

  4. Marilyn,

    I really appreciate this thoughtful reply to Barb’s fantastic novel — and I’m glad you found this Q & A with her. I really appreciate, also, your thoughtful take on writers from Sjvoll to Nesbo to Rankin. Great (non-girly) female protagonists are the best and Sydney is right up there. I also write (across gender) about a protagonist who I hope is non-girly, though she lives and works in the mountains and not the city. Shameless self-promotion, but thought I’d pass it along. And if your husband would like another reader and reviewer, let me know. I’m backed up a few months but glad to take a look. Best, Mark http://www.writermarkstevens.com

  5. Marilyn,

    I echo what Mark said. I’m especially thrilled with the comparison of Sydney to Ree Dolly. Winter’s Bone is truly one of my favorite novels. And OMG indeed on Harry Hole. As for non-girly protagonists, you should definitely check out Mark’s wonderful Allison Coil series!!

    And no righteous smile. A writer never knows how a book will turn out or be received. Or at least this writer doesn’t.

    I would be thrilled to receive a copy of your husband’s book, if he doesn’t mind going into a very large to-be-read stack. (Like Mark, I am months behind.) I do hope he’s working at least as much for fun as for profit.

    Best, Barbara

  6. Pingback: 2016: Top Books | Don't Need A Diagram

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