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.