Nick Petrie has been dubbed the heir apparent to Lee Child. The comparison is flattering, of course, but somewhat attributable to the fact that both authors have heroes who are former soldiers. Child has Jack Reacher and Petrie has Peter Ash. Both characters are damaged in their own way, though what primarily distinguishes Ash, a Marine Corp veteran, is his Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and inability to adjust after having returned from the war. He also has a tendency to stick his nose in the business of others where it doesn’t belong. It’s a conceit that has run through much of literary history, starting with Homer’s Odyssey and running through David Morrell’s First Blood -- which established the modern iteration of the wounded, wandering and wondering war veteran. Ash is more grounded, having found love – and trouble – and a stable life in Wisconsin, where he’s settled down with his girlfriend, a reporter, and renovates houses with his best friend. Of course, his work takes him far afield and his novels have featured far flung locals, ranging from Northern California to Iceland.

Petrie, who lives in Milwaukee, visited Houston’s Murder by the Book Bookstore in January, where he spoke with PW. The visit was part of his tour for his seventh novel, The Runaway, which finds Ash in Nebraska, where he run across a 19-year-old woman with a broken down car on the side of the road. She’s far from her small hometown in Montana, and in the thrall of a criminal gang. It goes without saying Ash soon becomes embroiled in another complicated situation where not all is as it seems. PW’s review called the book an “adrenaline-fueled ride [that] will keep readers turning the pages.”

PW: What mistake do readers or booksellers make about your books that you’d like to correct?

NP: I think the one mistake people make about is thinking they are military thrillers, because my hero is a veteran. But that’s not what I’m doing. What I’m doing is more character driven fiction. That is evident in The Runaway, which takes place on a somewhat smaller stage than some of the previous books and half of the book is from a female point of view. It’s a book that is driven by one of the typical tropes of crime fiction – the woman in peril --- and it is about sex and murder, but it is also about strength and resilience and what you have to do to survive and thrive.”

PW: You wrote this during the pandemic, do you think that had an impact on the way you wrote this book?

NP: I didn’t realize that this – the theme of survival -- was part of the personal subtext of the book until it was ready for publication. This happens with every book, when I look at them and see, I'm writing about my personal relationship with my wife, or my son going off to college. Or in the case of this book about how we were all feeling sort of powerless and the world was sort of closing in.

PW: Helene, who Ash finds on the roadside, is from a town in Montana. In that sense, her world is very small – though she’s in Big Sky Country – and she’s longing to escape.

NP: Yes, Helene is as isolated as a person can be. She’s out there in Montana on the edge of the Great Plains, when a stranger comes to town and he’s kind to her – she asks to go with him. So in a sense, that is also part of the story, it’s about the small towns in America where decisions have led to the loss of opportunities, truncated lives and depopulation.

PW: Every thriller, in a sense, is about how vulnerable we are as humans and often damaged by something in our past. Peter Ash and his PTSD is a perfect example of that. That he has PTSD, albeit from war, is something many readers will be able to relate to after several years of the pandemic, which has thrown many people’s lives upside down.

NP: Well, we are all to some extent formed and damaged by the way we came up in the world, the things that have happened to us or the things we have done. Peter Ash is a Marine Corp veteran. He signed up for the best of reasons. He was good at his job. But it changed him. So what do you do with that? That’s what is interesting – you ask, what can someone do to move their life forward. We’re all damaged. The question is what you do with it.

PW: It’s what makes Peter Ash relatable.

NP: Yes, it’s easier to identify with a character who feels like a real person. And when you can identify with a character, you care about them. And when you care about a character, the stakes for that character are higher. The result is the thriller is more thrilling.