In this brilliant debut, Barbara Nickless introduces us to marine-turned-railroad cop Sydney Parnell. Haunted by her time in Iraq (literally, as she routinely sees the ghosts of fallen comrades), she absorbs scotch like vitamin water, steals smokes from lazy cops and pops Dexedrine just to stay balanced.
Oh, and she kills a bunch of skinheads along the way.
Yeah, I love this character.
Sleep is about the only thing Sydney doesn’t do in this relentless thriller, and I haven’t even mentioned her loyal sidekick, Clyde, a Belgian Malinois who has a love of cheeseburgers, his own kevlar vest and, like Sydney, crippling PTSD from the war.
At the outset of Blood on the Tracks, a charity worker is murdered and hideously butchered. All evidence suggests that her fiance, a marine disfigured by an IED in Iraq, is the killer, but Sydney isn’t convinced. While the Denver PD considers the case closed, Sydney and Clyde continue to search for answers, even though it may expose war crimes that would ruin all of their lives — and might get Sydney killed.
What follows is a Nietzschean descent into the abyss of war and its aftermath. And as the body count begins to pile up around her, Sydney has no choice but to commit herself fully to the truth, even though that works against her self-interest.
What I also like about Sydney is that she isn’t the type who will only kill in self-defense. War has taught her that, once committed, it’s kill or be killed. When she and Clyde enter the skinhead compound, the orders are to take no prisoners, leave no survivors.
This is a very satisfying book to read in 2021. When Blood on the Tracks was first published, in 2016, hate crimes were on the rise in America. They reached a 16-year high in 2020, followed by a literal siege on the democratic process in early 2021.
Justice has taken a beating the past five years, so yeah, it’s very cathartic when Sydney bashes in a skinhead’s face with a rock.
Nickless incorporates all the great ingredients of a thriller — the flawed hero, antagonistic relationships, and numerous plot twists. My only critique of Blood on the Tracks is that there is one twist too many — an unexpected turn that feels superfluous, but more importantly, is difficult to reconcile with the rest of the novel.
However, Nickless lays a deep foundation with long-term story arcs that has me excited for whatever comes next.
I also love that Sydney is not a superstar detective or a prized forensics specialist, as we so often encounter in mystery series. She is a misfit who feels right at home with the outsiders who populate the hobo camps. This makes her essential to the story. To channel my old MFA lingo, it’s the story that only Sydney Parnell could tell, which is what draws the reader into her world.
At least it did for me. I’m looking forward to reading further installments of Sydney and Clyde’s adventures.