Blood on the Tracks (Sydney Rose Parnell Series), by Barbara Nickless

Barbara Nickless has opened up a new mystery series with a powerful book and an unusual lead character. Sydney Rose Parnell is a young woman raised in Colorado in a railroad family. Both parents have died and she’s raised by her grandmother. She joins the US Marine Corps and serves in Iraq in what would have to be one of the hardest jobs of all time: Processing the bodies of soldiers killed in action in order to ship the bodies back home as part of Marines Mortuary Affairs. During her tour of duty she falls in love with a soldier who’s killed in action. She returns home with the soldier’s service dog Clyde and becomes a special agent with the Railroad Police while working to finish her education.

Sydney Rose has returned with some terrible memories as well as regular visits from the dead. They follow her everywhere, popping up in her home and as she travels through hobo camps along railway lines dealing with the people who wander the lines. Clyde sees them, too.

As the book develops a woman named Elise is found dead. The main suspect is the Burned Man, an Iraq veteran and now a transient with burns over much of his body. Elise, known by most as a saint, had fallen in love with him and clues at the murder site point to the Burned Man.

Sydney Rose is drawn into the case by Michael Cohen, a homicide detective. Together they investigate the death as the mystery begins to point in multiple directions, one of those back to Sydney Rose’ time in Iraq.

Nickless is a wonderful writer and the prose flows beautifully in this book. Each chapter begins with the writing of Sydney Rose, describing her time in the service in papers from her college classes, her journal, and other writings as the book progresses.

The author has created an incredibly complex and troubled main character who still manages to exude kindness and humor despite the fact that her war experiences have made it difficult to become emotionally close with people, which is especially clear as her relationship with Cohen begins to deepen. Most of all Sydney Rose has an incredibly strong will, carrying a Marine’s instinct to push through any challenge.

This is one of the best first-in-series book I’ve read in quite a while. There is a full range of interesting characters, including complex ties through her own family and friends. The mystery is strong and the action sequences draw you in completely.

There’s a second book in the series already, called Dead Stop, which is already added to my must-read list.