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Barbara Nickless, “Dead Stop”

Barbara Nickless’ first thriller featuring special agent (a.k.a. railroad cop) Sydney Rose Parnell, was Blood on the Tracks. It’s a beauty. The shape of the story was unusual. The story starts out as a heart-pounding, cinematic thriller and then morphs into a heavy, gripping procedural. And with her debut Nickless turned loose in the world a compelling, resolute, heavily burdened protagonist and her dependable sidekick Clyde, who is equally wise, equally tough, and all Belgian Malinois.

In Blood on the Tracks, the case was so horrific that Sydney Rose ended up in five months of work-mandated counseling. In Dead Stop, the follow-up, Sydney thinks back on what she’s been through. “If the therapy hadn’t helped with the flashbacks and the nightmares and the ghosts, at least I’d weaned myself off the pain meds and the Ativan, off the cigarettes and self-reproach, working hard to find my way back to a clear head and a clean conscience.”

Flashbacks, nightmares and ghosts. That’s Sydney Rose.

She served in Iraq carrying dead bodies off the field of battle and, well, who can blame her for carrying around her world-weary burdens, her bruised soul? We know that a “clear head” is a long way off. She’s a brooder, a deep thinker on mortality who punches her way out of the darkness by taking up the cases of others and delivering justice with little concern for her own well-being or safety. Sure, that could be description for many a jaded cop but Sydney Rose balances darkness with relentless determination and genuine empathy—particularly for the dead.

With Dead Stop, Nickless keeps Sydney Rose in battle mode. There’s a dead woman on the railroad tracks, “a slick, shadowy mess of shattered bones and destroyed flesh were all the remained of a once-beautiful woman.” The dead woman might be a jumper—a suicide. Or maybe not. And here comes the empathy. “I closed my eyes and pictured Samantha Davenport as she had looked on  her driver’s license photo. The luminous dark hair falling behind her shoulders. The high curve of her brows. The knowing look in her eyes that spoke more of inborn wisdom than vast experience. I pressed my hand to my heart and, in my mind, I made her whole. I gathered what the train had scatted and I washed away the blood. I smoothed her hair, brought the life back to her eyes, and restored a pulse beneath her skin.”

There’s a missing child. There are major issues around the management of railroad crossings and railroad land acquisition. Layers of cop bureaucracy swirl around. Sydney Rose’s interactions with all the cops—local level and all the way up to the FBI—come across as believable and grounded. Nickless has done her research on the train business. Credibility oozes from every page, even when the blood flows. (Any indication you see out there that Dead Stop might be a bloodless cozy, ignore at your peril. The presence of a pup does not alter the gritty factor here.)

Sydney unravels secrets, digs into history, and keeps up her tireless search for the answer to one curious piece of evidence. The “inevitable tide of loss” pulls Sydney Rose down into the undertow. (Well, in fact, she rarely bobs to the surface.) The solution is the result of relentless work, sharp eyes, and shrewd logic. But nothing is going to change for Sydney Rose, even if she falls for one of the come-ons from the “real” cops who want to recruit her skills and services. After all, “The dead are a load you can’t set down. They weigh nothing. And everything.”

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Previous review of Blood on the Tracks with Q & A:

 

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