This is Nick Petrie’s fifth thriller featuring PTSD-afflicted Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran Peter Ash, and it retains every bit of the energy of his earlier works. This time Ash’s old war-buddy seeks his help in locating an eight-year-old boy who was taken a year ago after witnessing his mother’s murder in Washington, DC. The kidnapper is most likely the boy’s own father, the presumed killer. Indications are he and his son returned to their tight-knit family in remote northern Iceland.
Occasional flashbacks fill in the blanks regarding the young family – Erik, Sarah and their son Óskar – leading up to the murder. Sarah runs a computer security business and is shocked to discover on the servers of one of her clients a trove of career-ending videos and other evidence of criminality among Washington’s political class. Unwilling to let these misdeeds pass, Sarah sets up a mirror server, transfers the incriminating data to it, erases her footprints in the client computer, and seals her doom. The mirror server has an unbreakably long encryption key, which she destroys any record of. Needless to say, her client and his minions want that key. It’s preserved in only one form, in the photographic memory of her son Óskar.
Ash has plenty of antagonists, aside from his internal demons. There’s the mysterious crew following him: do they want him to succeed in finding Eric and Óskar or not? Or do they just want him to lay off? There is Erik’s paranoid extended family, not averse to ensuring their privacy with violence. There is the Icelandic head of police Hjálmar, actually a pretty reasonable guy, but relentless in trying to bring Peter in, at first because he misses his flight home – more of an expulsion, really – and subsequently for other, more serious reasons. But perhaps his greatest adversary is Iceland’s brutal weather. The story takes place in the dead of winter and a more apt metaphor would be difficult to find.
So, throw on a couple of sweaters, make yourself a cup of something hot, and settle in for a wild one. If you’ve read any of the other Peter Ash books (The Drifter, Burning Bright, Light It Up, Tear It Down) you’ll know the difficulties posed by Ash’s PTSD-induced claustrophobia. He does not do indoors well. That malady is so evocatively and consistently described, you begin to feel the world through his physicality, even anticipating his reactions. A more recent manifestation of his disorder are nightmares that force him to relive certain events, over and over again. These dreams are so potent, he avoids sleep – alas, not an effective survival strategy.
Though painful memories are always at the periphery of his awareness, they are a coherent piece of his psychic makeup and never became tiresome, despite repetition. In their own way, they are as powerful as the ravaged ghosts of the people murdered by the protagonist in Angel Luis Colón’s remarkable Hell Chose Me, who form an ever-present, chattering Greek chorus.
If you’ve read previous Peter Ash books you may be disappointed that Ash’s fiendishly clever and wickedly funny friend Lewis is not in this book, but as Ash convinces himself he’s getting closer to the truth of what happened to Erik and Óskar, he encounters a number of fascinating characters – not only implacable villains but unexpected allies.
If there’s anything to object to in Petrie’s work, it’s a tendency to reach a little too far in the closing pages. The final act of violence is puzzling because it comes out of the blue. But that isn’t enough to negate everything solid that had gone before. Do note that Ash is now a wanted man and has no passport or ID. It will be interesting to see how he gets back to Oregon. I’m hoping Petrie plans to tell me.
One of the great pleasures of this particular book is the descriptions of the weather and topography of Iceland. You may get a visceral feeling, as I did, from the bracing effects of the wind and cold, the sting of the snow and the perils of setting off into unbroken vistas of white. Meeting your opponents on such hostile ground is a real test and about as far from the desert landscape of Iraq as can be imagined. Maybe that’s one reason Ash is so determined to succeed. The freezing temperatures of Skagaströnd are inhospitable to ghosts.
When it comes to action thrillers, Lee Child is the acknowledged master. Jack Reacher fans are highly likely to enjoy Peter Ash, and Child himself says, “Lots of characters get compared to my own Jack Reacher, but Peter Ash is the real deal.”
Putnam Publishing Group
CFL Rating: 5 Stars