Blood on the Tracks (Sydney Rose Parnell No. 1) was gritty, grounded, terrific. With a dogged railroad cop as lead, and plenty of ghosts haunting Sydney Rose, it’s a novel that bends the genre and follows its own course. Six years ago, I noted how it had 900 ratings and reviews and how readers were loving it. Today, that title has nine thousand ratings and the overall opinion hasn’t wavered. One bit.
Dead Stop (SRP No. 2) was equally enjoyable. Readers voted “yes,” too. Go check. I didn’t keep up with the series after that but I have no doubt I would savor SRP No. 3, Ambush, and SRP No. 4, Gone to Darkness.
Why do I have no doubt? Because I just read At First Light, the first book in Nickless’ new series and it’s got that trademark Nickless feel. And readability. It’s smart. It’s got a wonderful sense of interior headspace for both main characters—Chicago detective Addie Bisset and forensic semiotician Dr. Evan Wilding.
I was worried about the “forensic semiotician.” Give me a railroad cop over an ivory tower brainiac any day. But I need not have worried. Nickless infuses Bisset and Wilding with so much humanity we slip into the story with ease and soon we are on the hunt in a puzzling case that pulls in a multitude of signs and symbols, Viking lore, runes, Norse mythology, bog bodies, Beowulf, Valkyries, and poetry.
Nickless wastes precisely zero time getting us into the thick of things in At First Light. We’re along a “forlorn section” of the Calumet River. And Detective Bisset is staring at the body of a man “murdered more than once.” The victim has three wounds. Each wound could have been fatal and “all were cruel” but she can’t be sure which wound took the life. “Had it been the slashed throat, the tightened noose, or the bone-crushing blow to the head?”
There are long wooden slates pressed horizontally into the mud around the dead man’s head and arranged to look like rays of the sun. And each stick contains tiny etchings “like letters in an unknown alphabet.” Addie pulls in Dr. Evan Wilding, a.k.a. the Sparrow, for assistance. He’s a Brit with dwarfism. He’s into falconry. He’s also into Addie. He wants to “concoct the perfect verse that would render Addie putty in his hands.” (He even chastises himself for thinking in clichés, a nice touch.) Their relationship is friendly, but platonic. Dr. Wilding would like more.
Nickless flips points of view with each chapter, however, and we know that Addie is not without some interest in Dr. Wilding, making for a fine underlay of romantic tension.
But the main thing is the hunt. There’s a second victim and indications of more to come. At First Light develops a rich intensity. Dr. Wilding puts the smarts in smarts. He attended Oxford University at age 11 and earned two PhDs by age 17. Addie has brainpower, too. She might be a touch more flawed. She’s not great at picking boyfriends. (“Someone had once told Addie that she went through men the way a rat terrier chewed through vermin—quickly and with ruthless efficiency.”). And Addie is not a big fan of rats. That’s about it. Neither is a tortured soul. (Refreshing!). Nickless lets them match wits with the killer and his complex ciphers and careful staging of his crimes. Along the way are some juicy morsels about the history of burial rites and cultural signifiers of death.
And some insightful information about semiotics. “Every human is a semiotician,” says Wilding. “That is, a reader of signs. All of us, every single day, interpret—or decode—the signs around us. Traffic lights. Road signs. The silhouette of a man or woman outside our bathroom doors. We’re constantly interpreting the manmade world around us.”
Nickless’ love for English runes and medieval literature is spelled out in her acknowledgements. Her rich background in the material comes through in abundance throughout At First Light. Dr. Wilding (who can read this book and not think of Peter Dinklage?) brings his wealth of knowledge to this case. But Addie is no slouch when it comes to analysis and seeing details. Nickless makes it enjoyable to watch the pair parse poetry and dissect words.
Thinks Wilding: “This case was like the jigsaw puzzles he used to work while he sat in hospital waiting rooms as a child. Pieces missing. Pieces from other puzzles mixed in. Half the time, the lid was gone, so you didn’t even know what picture you were trying to create. You had to fill in the blanks using your imagination. And imagination, as Sherlock Holmes told Dr. Watson, was the mother of truth.”
There is action and genuine jeopardy in At First Light, but when was the last time you read a mystery and thought: It’s just fun to watch these detectives think?
Q & A with Barbara Nickless & review of Blood on The Tracks.
Review of Dead Stop.