When Milwaukee author Nicholas Petrie’s thriller novel “The Drifter” came out last year, reviewers and readers compared it to the best-selling Jack Reacher series by Lee Child. Both Reacher and Petrie’s Peter Ash are ex-military men roaming the country and righting wrongs where they can.
Petrie’s second novel, “Burning Bright,” makes the comparison official with a glowing quote from Child himself on the cover: “Lots of characters get compared to my own Jack Reacher, but Peter Ash is the real deal,” Child wrote.
Petrie said while he always liked reading Lee Child’s books, he didn’t consciously pattern his character after Jack Reacher. With one exception.
“The one thing that I really stole consciously was the rootlessness of the character,” Petrie said. “His character doesn’t want a home, while my character is in pursuit of one but can’t really get there. I never really saw the resemblances.
“My wife read my latest book and said my prose is very much the same. Maybe that’s why I like his writing so much. It reminds me of mine.”
“Burning Bright” hits stores on Tuesday amid a wave of advance buzz and good reviews. Petrie will be in Madison at 7 p.m. on Jan. 18 to read from and talk about his book at Mystery to Me Bookstore, 1863 Monroe St.
Ash is a decorated U.S. Marine who saw combat in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Discharged and back home in America, Ash suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder that he describes as a “white static” of anxiety that clouds his mind whenever he’s in an enclosed space. As a result, he’s homeless by choice, traveling the country, sleeping outdoors and never staying put too long.
It’s perhaps ironic that Petrie would write about a man who doesn't have a home, since Petrie’s other job is running a home inspection business in Milwaukee. A carpenter for 15 years, Petrie said his day job is a welcome opportunity to get away from the computer screen when he’s writing.
“It’s a great antidote to staring at a screen in my office, to get out and climb on somebody’s roof and crawl around their attic and talk to new people every day,” he said. “As a writer, I’m very interested in my customers. It’s this daily changing sample of humanity. It’s a great way to get into the world and get outside my head. And to be useful.”
It was around 2008 or 2009 when Petrie began noticing that more of his customers were veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, finally coming home and eager to settle down and buy a house. He realized he knew very little about their experiences.
“It was really kind of embarrassing how little I knew about what these folks had gone through, fighting a war that now seems like a very bad idea,” Petrie said.
He started asking questions and doing research, but it was difficult, in part because many veterans are reluctant to talk about PTSD, Petrie said. Calling it the “unsung crisis of our age,” Petrie said he thought he could explore some of the challenges facing veterans through a novel.
“The Drifter” features Ash, a native of Bayfield, coming to Milwaukee to help the widow of a fellow veteran who had apparently committed suicide. While rehabbing the family’s front porch, Ash finds a battered suitcase filled with money and explosives. Soon, some bad men come looking for the suitcase, and Ash is drawn into a mystery.
“By the time I finished the first draft of the first book, everybody in it was a veteran or was otherwise somehow affected by war,” Petrie said. “It kind of snuck up on me.”
Petrie is not a veteran himself, and was happy to hear from veterans that they liked the book and he had done right by them. When Putnam bought the rights to publish “The Drifter,” the publisher liked it so much they wanted a sequel. So Petrie went back and changed “five or six lines” to leave the door open for a second book.
“Burning Bright” is that sequel, and it’s noticeably different than “Drifter.” While the first book was relatively grim and claustrophobic, the action-packed “Burning” is a more expansive and even upbeat novel.
Ash, while hiking in Northern California, comes across a woman on the run from assassins who want a mysterious computer program her late mother had developed. As the action (and there is lots of it) moves from California to Seattle, Ash seems almost happy, a contrast to the brooding character of the first novel.
As Petrie confronts the challenges and opportunities that a successful mystery series poses, he said he’s fortunate that Ash is such a rootless character, able to get entangled in situations in different locations in each book.
“I’m a big fan of private investigator novels, but there’s a risk in those books that you’re set in the same place and telling the same story,” he said. “I wanted to be able to do different things. The third book is very different in tone from the second book, and I’m trying to think about the fourth book as yet another departure.”
Petrie said he wants Ash to change from book to book, and for the arc of the series to follow his long journey toward healing and rehabilitation.
“The goal wasn’t to have Peter trapped in this moment, but to have him navigate his way through,” he said. “It’s showing one path through.”