Monday, July 13, 2020

Interview with Barbara Nickless

Barbara Nickless joins us today to talk about her novel, Gone to Darkness. 

Where did you get the idea for GONE TO DARKNESS? How did you know that was the book you wanted to write?

My publisher and I had agreed that we would transition Sydney and her K9 partner from the railroads, where they’d been cops through the first three books in the series, and officially into homicide investigations with Denver PD. As I considered ideas for Sydney’s introduction into Denver’s Major Crimes Unit, I decided to follow the advice of science fiction writer Damon Knight. Knight recommended creating a story by blending together two different ideas. In the case of GONE TO DARKNESS, I pursued three threads that had piqued my interest during my regular reading. First was the idea of our great silent underworld of workers—mostly women—many of whom are farm laborers or night-shift janitors or who work at meat packing plants. They are often voiceless and sometimes abused. I threaded that with the world of pickup artists, asking myself: what if a certain kind of man got tired of the seduction game and decided to simply take what he wanted? And finally, because a friend had introduced me to graphic novels, I plumbed the world of Comicsgate, a campaign meant to keep women out of comic book publishing.

For readers who may be new to your work, please briefly introduce us to Sydney Rose Parnell.
Sydney is a former Marine who served in Iraq in Mortuary Affairs, processing the bodies of the dead. Her struggle with PTSD was born out of my own post-traumatic suffering. Creating her character and writing her story became a way for me to work my way through the darkness.

What made you decide to have Sydney be a railroad cop at the series' inception?
I was looking for a twist on the usual police procedural, and when I learned that there are modern-day hobos and modern-day railroad cops—and that these cops have the same jurisprudence as traditional police, I had what I was looking for. 

The scenario I create in my books is that after Sydney returned home from the war, she wanted nothing more than to be as far away from people as she could while still earning a living wage. Because she comes from a long line of railroaders, she went through the police academy and signed on as a railroad cop—or a bull in hobo parlance. She figured working a territory that is 100 feet wide and 35,000 miles long, dealing with nothing but freight, would be perfect. And it was. Until the first body showed up.

Who or what was the inspiration for Sydney's canine partner Clyde? How did you approach researching how a canine partner would work?

My deep dive into understanding post-traumatic stress inevitably led me to learn about veterans, the group of people we most associate with PTSD. That, in turn, led me to military working dogs like Clyde. Dogs suffer from PTS just like humans, and I thought it would be good if Sydney had a partner to lean on, a partner who could also lean on her. It was a struggle for them at first. Clyde barely tolerated Sydney—he was still emotionally attached to his handler back in Iraq. I had a lot of fun developing their bond, as strong as any human-to-human connection.

Once I decided to give Sydney a K9 partner, I interviewed several police K9 handlers as well as reading everything I could. At one point I spoke with an instructor from the Air Force Academy and asked if I could meet the dogs and the handlers, maybe learn a few tricks. Picture Dwayne Johnson—aka The Rock—folding his arms and staring down at you with icy eyes. “I could show you, ma’am,” he said. “But then I’d have to kill you.”

So maybe I wasn’t quite ready to die for the cause. Instead, I was scheduled to meet with the handler and see the dogs at another air force base. Then the pandemic struck. Fortunately, I knew the owner of Mountain High Service Dogs, and Candy became an invaluable resource.

GONE TO DARKNESS is your fourth thriller featuring Sydney. How do you keep your series fresh?
As a writer, I’m definitely not interested in wash, rinse, repeat. Each book has required a different approach and created new challenges. I went full gonzo with the third book, stepping away from traditional mystery and writing a homage to one of my favorite TV series, Homeland. It was so much fun ramping up the thriller aspects of the story. 

If your Sydney was actually a real person, would you be friends with them? Why or why not? Would you like to have a Clyde of your own?
First of all, I definitely couldn’t keep up with Sydney if we were to sit down together in a bar—and I’m not saying that’s how I define friendship, although it seems to be one of my favorite activities. With Sydney, I’d be the first to pass out, and she’d trundle me into her car and make sure I got safely home. And that would be the end of our relationship. On the other hand, we share a love of good books and a strong conscience. So maybe she’d forgive for being a lightweight.

As for having a dog like Clyde, that’s a great question. Clyde is a Belgian Malinois, and these dogs require a very committed handler/partner/owner. They’re incredibly smart and have a very strong prey drive—which means anything, including your favorite shoes or the screen door—are game. There’s a reason they’re called “maligators.” Another great saying is, “Pride goeth before a Mal.” So as much as I love and admire dogs like Clyde, I know when I’ve met my match.

What was the last mystery novel you read, other than your own, that you LOVED? Why did you love it?

Attica Locke’s Black Water Rising. I love when a story is driven by the decisions the characters make—decisions that feel inevitable because the character is so fully fleshed. Even when we want to take the character by the shoulders and shake them for making bad decisions, we understand completely. And we’ll follow them anywhere. The hero of Black Water Rising, Jay Porter, is someone who just wants to be a good husband and make enough money as a small-time lawyer to support his growing family. He wants, simply, to be a good man. But events conspire to lead him astray. Give me a novel with a sense of moral urgency and I’m happy.

What is your favorite book of all time?
Now that is the hardest question of all. I’ve read thousands of books, and many of them affected me deeply. So just one? I’ll stick with the mystery/thriller genre and say Gorky Park. The conflicted and morally-driven character of Arkady Renko, set in motion by an intricate plot, and working in the dangerous world of the Soviet Union during the Cold War—perfection! Of course, there’s also The Constant Gardener (John le Carré), Mystic River (Dennis Lehane) and Smilla’s Sense of Snow (Peter Hoeg), all of which have wonderfully developed characters and a sense of moral urgency.

What are you working on now?
Sydney and Clyde get to take a break while I write a spin-off novel based on a character introduced in GONE TO DARKNESS. Evan Wilding is a forensic semiotician—he studies the signs, symbols, and writing left at crime scenes. With that evidence, he builds a profile of the suspect. His regular gig—aside from working as a college professor—is helping Chicago PD with their most difficult cases. He also consults with the alphabet soup of intelligence agencies—the FBI, CIA, NSA, and so on.

Friday, July 10, 2020

The Corpse with the Crystal Skull by Cathy Ace and the Jamaican Ginger Kicker

Cathy Ace joins us today to tell us about her novel, The Corpse with the Crystal Skull and match it with the perfect drink. Cathy is one of our favorite authors here at Mystery Playground and we're thrilled that's she's back with us today. 

The Corpse with the Crystal Skull is the ninth Cait Morgan Mystery, and this time Cait is in Jamaica, celebrating her 50th birthday with her husband Bud. They’re staying at a luxurious private estate owned by the eccentric Freddie Burkinshaw, who is discovered shot to death in an inaccessible room at the top of a tower reputedly built by Cait’s namesake, Sir Henry Morgan. 

Thus begins a tale that becomes increasingly complex, and mysterious. Cait has to grapple with her conscience as she’s forced to consider people she counts among her tiny group of friends as suspects; there’s the thrill of hunting down lost treasure; some shenanigans involving hidden passages, and a high-security task Bud’s been sent to Jamaica to undertake, aided by his secret-service colleagues. It’s complicated. Ian Fleming has a few things to answer for, and there’s more than a walk-on role for an ageing Italian movie star. 

Anyone who’s read a Cait Morgan Mystery knows Cait enjoys a drink, and in Jamaica she’s spoiled for choice. She’s become mildly addicted to a grapefruit-flavoured soda called Ting, which she sometimes adds to gin – but she usually resets to her standard gin and tonic for the evenings. But something she invented during her time in Jamaica is a drink she calls the Jamaican Ginger Kicker. Inspired by the Moscow Mule, Cait took vodka, added a splash of pineapple soda for a little sweetness, then added real Jamaican ginger beer (yes, Jamaican ginger beer has a specific flavour – it’s spicy! – and, yes, it’s worth getting the real thing). The full recipe appears below – you might want to try one of these when the weather is hot, you settle down with a good book (maybe even this one, to get the entire beach-side vibe), and you need something long and refreshing. It’s got some bite, but the pineapple adds depth, and sweetness. Lime is an essential ingredient – you certainly need one to squeeze into the drink, and maybe another, for decoration. Cheers, folks!


  • Large glass, with ice cubes
  • 1 measure of vodka 
  • Splash of Grace brand Island Soda Pineapple (add to taste)
  • Bottle of Grace brand Island Soda Ginger Beer
  • Squeeze one LARGE wedge of lime into the drink, add a small one for garnish (garnish is your choice!) 

(Tip: put your ginger beer, pineapple soda, and vodka in the fridge to chill beforehand)

(NOTE: Crystal Head vodka – shown in the photograph – is made in Newfoundland, Canada, and was the “brainchild” of the actor Dan Ackroyd. It’s a peaches-and-cream corn-based vodka, which this author prefers it for its pure, clean flavour. And the bottle, designed by artist John Alexander, is spectacular!)

ABOUT THE BOOK: Welsh Canadian globetrotting sleuth, and professor of criminal psychology, Cait Morgan, is supposed to be “celebrating” her fiftieth birthday in Jamaica with her ex-cop husband Bud Anderson. But when the body of the luxury estate’s owner is discovered locked inside an inaccessible tower, Cait and her fellow guests must work out who might have killed him – even if his murder seems impossible. Could the death of the man who hosted parties in the 1960s attended by Ian Fleming and Noël Coward be somehow linked to treasure the legendary Captain Henry Morgan might have buried at the estate? Or to the mission Bud and his secret service colleagues have been sent to the island to undertake?

You can find Cathy on Facebook, and on Twitter @AceCathy. 

Friday, July 3, 2020

Nacho Average Murder and The Quarantine Margarita

The fabulous Edith Maxwell joins us today writing as Maddie Day for a fabulous quarantine cocktail to celebrate her latest Country Store Mystery, Nacho Average Murder. And one lucky reader (US residents only) can win a copy of the book. to enter just comment below naming your favorite warm weather drink. Now let's hear about Nacho Average Murder.

Robbie Jordan, who normally lives, works, and cooks in southern Indiana, loved being back in her hometown of Santa Barbara for her high school reunion. And I loved putting her there. She indulged in eating avocado huevos rancheros, quesadillas, artichokes, and of course nachos. What better drink to accompany that kind of food than a margarita?
I know the best margarita recipes include fresh-squeezed lime juice and Cointreau or Grand Mariner with the tequila. Uh-oh. I didn’t have either enough fresh limes or an orange liqueur. But you know what? During a time of quarantine, we make do. 

When I make the drink, I like to use a dollop of frozen limeade. It’s quick, easy, cold, and already sweet – and I had some in the freezer. I also had tequila in the liquor cabinet. In lieu of an orange liqueur, I thought I’d see how the Cardamaro my son brought me from Italy would work in the drink. You might know Amaro, but here’s the description of Cardamaro: “A wine-based aperitif, infused with cardoon and blessed thistle (two artichoke relatives), then aged in oak. The result has the richness and weight of sweet vermouth, and only a gentle herbal bitterness.”

Artichoke? Works for me, and it worked for the drink. 

Quarantine Margarita
For one drink, mix in a tumbler or shaker:
2 ounces (1/4 cup) frozen limeade (yes, scoop it right from the can)
2 ounces tequila of your choice
1 tablespoon Cardamaro (or any orange liqueur)
2 ice cubes
Sprinkle kosher salt on a plate. Wet the rim of a pretty Mexican glass and press it upside down onto the salt. Decant the drink contents, straining out the ice, from the tumbler or shaker into the salted glass. Stick a slice of lime on the rim and enjoy a mystery set in Santa Barbara!

Readers: What’s your favorite warm-weather drink? I’d love to send one of you (US only) a singed copy of the book!

Agatha Award-winning author Edith Maxwell writes the Quaker Midwife Mysteries and multi-published short crime fiction. As Maddie Day she pens the Country Store Mysteries and the Cozy Capers Book Group Mysteries. With twenty-one books in print and more in production, Maxwell/Day lives north of Boston, where she writes, gardens, and cooks. Find her at Maddie Day Author and as @MaddieDayAuthor on social media.
In Nacho Average Murder, Robbie Jordan temporarily leaves Pans ’N Pancakes, her country store in South Lick, Indiana, to visit Santa Barbara—where wildfire smoke tinges the air, but a more immediate danger may lie in wait.

While looking forward to her high school reunion back in California, Robbie Jordan’s anticipation is complicated by memories of her mother’s untimely death. At first, she has fun hanging out with her old classmates and reuniting with the local flavors—avocados, citrus, fish, and spicy Cali-Mex dishes. But when she gets wind of rumors that her mother, an environmental activist, may not have died of natural causes, Robbie enlists old friends to clear the smoke surrounding the mystery. But what she finds could make it hard to get back to Indiana alive . . .