G. P. Putnam's Sons, 384 pages, $27
“The Drifter” was a recommendation from a friend. It was recommended to him by the CEO of a big independent bookstore. What a provenance! Indeed, it was one of those books I didn’t want to put down. When I did manage to close the book, I looked forward with pleasure to resuming. It was a thriller with a big heart.
Most good authors build their story slowly, and this is what Petrie does. He cleverly goes from an opening look at his protagonist dealing with a growling dog under a porch to later investigating what could be a terrorist attack. If you don’t mind learning in the next few paragraphs what Petrie takes a few chapters to establish, then read on. This is a mild spoiler alert.
Lt. Peter Ash safely returned to the U.S. after several years in the turbulent, stressful environment of the Middle East. Virtually the minute he touched U.S. soil, his disabling PTSD, in the form of claustrophobia, began. For over a year he disappeared into the north woods to live under the stars and trees. The veterans’ grapevine, however, managed to find him to tell him that his old buddy, Sgt. James Johnson, had committed suicide. Peter’s disability had prevented him from keeping in touch, and now it was too late.
Harboring feelings of guilt and shame, Peter heads to Milwaukee to look up Jimmy’s widow, Dinah, and two children. Under the pretense of being part of a new government program that helps out families of deceased veterans, Peter begins to do some fix-it work on Dinah’s house. In the process of redoing her porch, he discovers a big honkin’ dog growling in the corner under that porch. Legend has it that the mastiff is the reason the neighborhood cats and small critters have been disappearing. Having disabled the dog in a clever manner, Peter then discovers a suitcase. In the suitcase are $400,000 and a big honkin’ amount of explosives. It’s clear Dinah knows nothing about it. It also becomes clear that Jimmy hadn’t lived with his family towards the end. Was the suitcase his? If so, what had he gotten mixed up in? It’s hard for Peter to believe that Jimmy had turned rogue or radical. If Jimmy hadn't placed the suitcase under the porch, who had?
In the process of tracing Jimmy’s footsteps, Peter meets some unsavory and shadowy characters. People give him the stink-eye, shadow him, beat him up, try to kill him, and want to know what he knows. The truth is Peter doesn’t know diddly. What is also true is that Dinah and her sons are in danger. Peter stretches himself to the limit to protect them.
Petrie’s thriller comes with a bonus. Although it appears from his biography that he was not in the military himself, Petrie writes of veterans’ difficulties with passion and care. Many of the characters in “The Drifter” are veterans, and their perspectives have been warped by what happened to them in the Middle East. How do you turn that part of yourself off, the part where it’s okay, if not laudable, to kill? Peter must answer this question, and he must figure out if Jimmy had the same problem.
Petrie has crafted an entertaining and thoughtful book. Pretty good for a debut. Here’s an MBTB star (despite the squeamish fact that both Peter and the dog needed a good scrubbing for most of the book)!