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“I would rather sit on a pumpkin, and have it all to myself, than be crowded on a velvet cushion.”
– Henry David Thoreau  
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  Volume No. 14 Issue No. 10 October 2017  

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  “Blood on the Tracks”
  By Robin Widmar

   The reputation of the United States Marine Corps has taken a beating in recent months, thanks to a scandal involving social media and illicit photos of female service members. Even though the acts were perpetrated by a relative few, the widespread attention given to the disgraceful behavior tarnishes principles that most Marines hold dear: Honor. Integrity. Loyalty.
   
   Those values, and the complicated conflicts that can arise from upholding them, are an integral part of “Blood on the Tracks,” an award-winning debut fiction novel from Colorado author Barbara Nickless.
   
   Marine turned railroad police officer Sydney Rose Parnell deals with the effects of her wartime service on a daily basis. Assigned to a Mortuary Affairs unit in Iraq, Sydney’s job was to help process the remains of fallen Marines and prepare them for their final journey. Since returning home to Denver, she has worked to create a somewhat normal life after bearing witness to too much death. But the ghosts of her past sit at her breakfast table, turn up at her crime scenes and occasionally dispense advice. Even her Belgian Malinois K9 companion, Clyde, who is also a war veteran, is not immune to the apparitions.
   
   The specters of Iraq intrude into Sydney’s life yet again when she is asked to assist with a murder investigation in the midst of a frigid Colorado winter. Elise Hensley was known as a “kindhearted lady” because of her penchant for helping railroad hobos and other transients who move from place to place by hopping freight trains, living in temporary camps along the way. When she is brutally killed, the evidence points to the Burned Man, a Marine war veteran whose face was horribly disfigured in an IED (improvised explosive device) blast. The Burned Man, whose real name is Tucker Rhodes, recently returned to Denver with plans to give up his nomadic lifestyle and marry Elise. He denies killing the woman he loved but has no memory of what happened after he arrived at her apartment.
   
   Denver Police Detective Michael Cohen initially brings Sydney into the investigation to identify hobo signs, which hobos use as a means of communication, that were found at the murder scene. She quickly recognizes the victim as part of her extended family. When she catches up with Tucker, following the railroad version of a car chase, the two realize they share a wartime secret that was supposed to remain forever buried in the past. If it became public knowledge, their lives and those of the others involved would be destroyed. Equally disturbing is the possibility that Elise’s murder could be somehow connected to that secret. Sydney begins to wonder if Tucker is being set up, and if there is a larger conspiracy at work.
   
   Sydney is a sort of kindhearted lady in her own right, distributing food and warm clothing at hobo camps and occasionally arranging assistance for those who will accept it. The relationships she builds provide valuable information not only about the murder victim and her associates, but also about dark undercurrents in the rail-riding community.
   
   Along with Clyde, Sydney navigates a tricky investigative road that ultimately leads her into a world of violent rail gangs and the discovery of other horrific crimes, including another case long gone cold. She jeopardizes her alliance with Detective Cohen as she crosses blurred lines of loyalty and duty in search of answers. Marines are taught that quitting is not an option, and Sydney is the embodiment of gritty determination. While some of her actions are questionable, they become understandable in light of her resolve to protect those she cares about.
   
   Through it all, Clyde gravitates between the stalwart working dog that he is and the faithful companion Sydney needs. He has had his own share of psychological trauma, but the bond he forges with Sydney begins to more closely resemble the one he had with his previous owner.
   
   Justice is served in the end. Sydney stays silent about some of the final details to preserve at least a portion of the memory and yes, even the honor, of Elise’s murderer. It seems a fit ending for someone who holds a steadfast belief in the USMC motto Semper Fidelis: Always Faithful.
   
   Nickless doesn’t shy away from the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder on her veteran characters or their relationships. Realistically, it becomes part of who they are, something considered and addressed and often shoved into the dark recesses of the past in order to function in the present. Further insights into Sydney’s personal struggles with PTSD come in the form of excerpts from her journal, college papers and a newspaper interview.
   
   The author also doesn’t downplay rough language, and some of the more violent action scenes may not appeal to more sensitive readers. The story takes place during a stormy February cold snap, so at times “Blood on the Tracks” can seem downright bleak. However, through her characters, Nickless casts light on two of the strongest elements in human nature: hope and resilience. Without these, the world would be a dark place indeed.
   
   There are a few unresolved plot points that presumably will be addressed in the next book(s) in the series, but the core of the story wraps up in a satisfactory way. Just don’t expect “happily ever after” for Sydney Rose Parnell any time soon.
   
   Solid storytelling from a first-person point of view combined with a unique setting, clean prose and vivid descriptions (seriously, the outdoor and winter storm scenes will have you looking for a sweater) make it easy to see why “Blood on the Tracks” has received numerous accolades, including the Daphne du Maurier Award of Excellence for mainstream mystery; and, more recently, the 2017 Colorado Book Award in the mystery category.
   
   The next book in the Sydney Rose Parnell series, “Dead Stop,” is scheduled for release in October 2017. Learn more about the Colorado author at her website: http://barbaranickless.com/.
  
 
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