Books: Then and Now

Category: Now

Review: The Drifter by Nicholas Petrie

By: Richard E. Gower

The Drifter is a thriller. If you like a good page-turner this is one of those stories that pulls you through the pages as if you were wakeboarding on a tow rope behind a three-hundred horsepower ski boat with twin MerCruisers®. And don’t say I didn’t warn you. If you dare open the covers to begin reading this book after ten at night, you’ll be dragging your behind through your classes or workplace the next day, if you make it there at all before noon.

A good thriller will have readers booing the villains and cheering for the hero and this story provides a lot to both jeer at and applaud. The protagonist, Peter Ash, is a twenty-first century knight-errant. He is an emotionally damaged war-veteran who goes into battle back home against a bunch of malevolent actors to rescue a fair damsel. The damsel is a strong person in her own right however and probably wouldn’t need rescuing except these are seriously bad people she is up against. The plot is well-constructed. The escalation of the conflict between Ash and the criminal elements ratchets up the suspense and keeps it tightly wound until the end.

Fiction notwithstanding, the characters, good and bad, are easily believable because, other than a little hyperbole added in for dramatic effect, their backgrounds, actions and motivations can be found in the text of real-life news stories published every day of the week. Nicholas Petrie’s word-craft is also top grade. He has the ability to make his good-people characters agreeable, likeable and relatable and the nasties thoroughly detestable.

I must add a disclaimer here that the version that I read was a bound advance copy, an uncorrected proof sent out from the publisher (Putnam) for reviewers, so any of the text or quotes that I have included below may have been changed in the final, published printing. I will also say however that I would be surprised if many, or any, changes were made. Anything other than minor tweaks would throw the book out of equilibrium.

Consider this early-on description of the hero, Peter Ash: “Peter was lean and rangy, muscle and bone, nothing extra. His long face was angular, the tips of his ears slightly pointed, his hair the unruly shag of a buzz cut grown wild. He had the thoughtful eyes of a werewolf a week before the change.”

Or one of the fair damsel, Dinah, widow of Peter’s dead friend: “In the picture with her kids, Dinah had seemed fragile, like fine china kept high on a shelf. In person, she was anything but. He knew she was an ER nurse, so he was expecting the air of calm competence. But he wasn’t prepared for how the green hospital scrubs showed her shape, or the way she carried herself, fluid, capable motion with her head held high, her back straight as an iron rod. And the picture definitely hadn’t captured her eyes. They were the pale blue of deep glacier ice, and filled with knowledge and sadness.”

And when Nicholas Petrie creates villains, his descriptions are reminiscent of a late master of the craft, John D. MacDonald, who died in 1986 after writing more than seventy-five books and five hundred short stories. He (Petrie) reserves a special kind of scorn for Jonathan Skinner, a hedge fund operator and financier character in the book. Skinner is one of those people in real life who have been known to enrich themselves by billions of dollars while often melting down entire small economies and ruining the lives of thousands of other people, with a few manipulative clicks of a mouse.

In the book, Peter Ash and another character have just rammed the back of Skinner’s Bentley with a big SUV and the financier is furious. The description: “His thin lips parted, showing bright white teeth. Something ancient and reptilian peering through his eyes.”

The police are on their way because of the collision and Ash hesitates at the scene. “Skinner was pale with rage, a peculiar glitter in his eye. He didn’t even seem to notice his broken finger. Again, Peter felt the powerful urge to do him permanent damage. There was something primitive about it, like the urge to kill a snake. Snakes had a certain wrongness to them, the flickering tongue, that sinuous slither. Skinner had a different kind of wrongness. An emptiness in the eyes. An utter lack of regard for anyone other than himself.”

Petrie also does eclectic well. One of the characters in The Drifter is a criminal and thug who has a conscience at his core and a self-imposed code of behaviour. He is also able to understand and explain why: ‘the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act led to the banking crisis of 2008’. It’s difficult to make criminality socially acceptable in fiction, but he manages to pull it off.

And then there’s the dog.

Also central to the story is Charles Mingus, a snarling, slavering and malodorous one hundred and fifty pound mongrel named after the American jazz musician and composer. A description of Charles-the-dog goes as follows: “It had the bullet-shaped head of a pit bull, but the lean muscled body and legs of an animal built for chasing down its prey over long distances. Tall upright ears, a long wolfish muzzle. Its matted fur was mostly a kind of deep orange, with brown polka dots. And the animal was enormous. Like a timber wolf run through the wash with a pit bull, a Great Dane and a fuzzy orange sweatshirt.”

There is one hilarious scene that might upset PETA members and animal lovers in general, but anyone who has ever owned a large, smelly dog will understand. Peter Ash can no longer stomach the animal’s overpowering stench and finally takes Charles Mingus to a self-serve coin operated car wash and hoses him down (“…illegal in fifty states..”) with warm water and (“nontoxic”) soap that smells: “like plastic strawberries”. Charles comes out no worse for wear and is now presentable without embarrassment in respectable neighbourhoods.

So there you have it. Not a love story but definitely a story about love. A wounded (emotionally) white knight, who comes charging into the fray in his forty-year-old pickup truck and selflessly goes up against incredible odds to fight some very bad people and save a lady in distress. And it even has a dog. Does Peter succeed in his quest? I won’t spoil it for you. Crack open a copy of The Drifter to find out. There’s a depth to this book that makes it more than a potboiler.   REG

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