Henriette has just met her, but Dark Territory is actually the second Signy Shepherd novel.

Philpott Dark Territory

Simon & Schuster, 2016

“So wonderful to finally meet you, honey. We’ve all heard so much about you. […] Look at you, such a skinny little thing. From what Maitland said, I expected a giant killer, fourteen feet tall and swinging a mighty sword.”

In an interview with “Open Book”, the author discusses the genesis of the titles of both novels.

Dark Territory is the latest in my thriller series following the adventures of Signy Shepherd, a conductor on a modern Underground Railroad, known as the Line. The working title for the first draft, The Ties that Bind, was a lifeless cliché. As I worked through the final draft, I spent a long time trying to come up with a more evocative title. Finally, I hit on the idea of using train terminology. Modern train related definitions are dry and technical, so I researched old-fashioned railroad language. Dark Territory means ‘a section of tracks without functioning signal lights'”.

Much of the inspiration for the series is rooted in her experience as a social worker, including a placement in a women’s shelter, which she describes in an interview with Civilian Reader:

“It was a fascinating place to work — never a dull moment. The women who worked there were strong, brave and dedicated to keeping other women safe. Occasionally, there appeared to be a coordinated effort to help women flee particularly dangerous situations — tickets purchased, rides organized, that sort of thing.”

But ideas can come from multiple directions, sometimes simultaneously, so whereas this earlier experience has its roots in her early working years, a more specific incident contributed to what would become the second novel in the series:

“At about the same time, there was a story in the newspaper about a woman who had fled her allegedly abusive partner. She ran across the United States, and eventually went into hiding with help from an Underground Railroad system. It was a controversial case. The woman claimed she was keeping her daughter safe — her partner claimed she had kidnapped their child — but what stuck with me was the entire concept of a modern underground railroad. I thought it was a brilliant idea, and very much needed by women who have been failed by the legal system.” (Also, from Civilian Reader: check it out in full.)

While there are many brave and determined women in these novels, there are also many who are openly disparaged and mistreated; there are abusive and misogynistic male characters in both novels, some presented in fleeting glimpses (revealing the pervasive sexism in our society) and some in what appear to be recurrnig roles (however, no spoilers!).

“‘Trust me,’ said Wilkington, moving Stone toward a side room where they could talk in private, ‘you don’t want to go there. The woman’s like a zebra mussel; she gets into everything and is almost impossible to scrape off.’ He gave Stone a reassuring squeeze on the arm. ‘Don’t worry, though. She’ll still write you a fat cheque. She has more money than she knows what to do with.’”

The second novel in the series opens with a simliar structure and pace as Blown Red did. The first segment focuses on the character(s) comprising the new case which will occupy the bulk of the story, Signy’s current assignment, with ensuing segments devoted to the other new character(s) who are most threatening in this file and the recurring characters recognizable to readers of the first novel

Although technically self-contained, readers who choose to begin with the series’ second volume will not have the advantage of understanding the shadow cast by Signy’s backstory, even though devoted readers have only a fleeting understanding of it. [Thoughts on the series’ first volume here.]

Much remains unknown, because she grew up in the foster care system, but at least one significant layer surrounding her identity and experiences as a young girl was revealed in Blown Red, and although this revelation is repeated in Dark Territory, the full impact of it isn’t felt in summarizing, but in discovering it along with Signy.

This reconstruction is challenging because Signy was very young when she was taken into foster care, and “…events before the age of four or five are ephemeral, eventually eclipsed by newer memories. It is not until about the age of ten that the memories begin to crystallize and can be accessed as the person moves forward into adulthood.”

But it is clear that something in Signy’s background or constitution drives her work with The Line. In situations which would leave many paralyzed, she takes action.

Much of the action in Dark Territory unfolds near Whiteface Mountain in the Adirondacks, but what will bring readers back for a third Signy Shepherd novel, will be the slow unfurling of the events which instiled in her the capacity for this action.

That’s the real story here.