“Light It Up” by Nick Petrie is the third installment of the Peter Ash series. It is a fascinating story, but what makes this book special are the many layers. It has an action-packed plot intertwining guns, drugs and money. But it also probes the subject of returning soldiers.
People might think of Peter Ash as a clone of Lee Child’s character Jack Reacher, but in actuality, the only similarity is that both are wandering characters. Ash’s military life and his current status as a veteran with PTSD are thoughtfully explored, and unlike Reacher Petrie’s character, has formed bonds with his girlfriend June and a good buddy Lewis.
Readers will not have a chance to get settled in because almost from the first page the action begins. Peter decides to take a job riding shotgun to protect an enormous amount of cash being transferred. His friend, Henry, whose daughter runs a Denver security company that protects cash-rich cannabis entrepreneurs from modern-day highwaymen, Peter, and two others are in an armed truck in the mountains of Colorado. The $300,000 cargo comes under attack by highway hijackers.
Of the four, Ash is the lone survivor of the melee. He is determined to get to the bottom of what happened and will use all his skills learned while in the military, including being a hunter, tracker and, if necessary, a killer. He enlists the help of his girlfriend June Cassidy and his good friend Lewis to find the culprits.
Elise Cooper: In many ways, this is a story of a veteran?
Nick Petrie: I am not a veteran, so I am not writing from personal experience. However, I did speak with many who have returned from active duty. They told of the challenges they have faced and my hero, Peter Ash, is based on those conversations. I enjoy talking with vets when they reach out to me.
EC: How would you describe Peter?
NP: He is reserved, ambitious, loyal, tough, resourceful and able to use the skills he learned in the military. I wanted to make sure he is morally driven and is very capable of solving a mystery. But as with many returning veterans he has PTSD, something he calls “white static,” where he has extreme claustrophobia.
EC: The June character compliments Peter?
NP: I love writing her character. She is Ash minus the military. I would describe her as ingenious, intelligent, no-nonsense and strong. She and Peter relate well together. I put in the scene of her locked in the trunk of a car to show how she did not think of herself, but how Peter feels being in enclosed places. I based her on the women in my life.
EC: In what way?
NP: Every woman in my life is pretty ferocious. My mom is someone who wakes up every day raring to go and has an office nickname of “the hammer.” My sister is super smart and super strategic. My wife Margaret doesn’t take anything from anybody and has no patience for people who are incompetent, lazy and will not get the job done. They all push me to be a better person.
EC: How would you describe June’s and Peter’s relationship?
NP: They have found something in each other. I think they profoundly understand one another and are rescuing each other all the time. They also help each other feel safe. I put in the scenes with the letter writing to each other, the Pony Express mail, because each can put down in words their feelings. Peter is a romantic and wanted to woo June.
EC: How would you describe Lewis?
NP: I think he is bright, curious, and self-taught. He is a career criminal who has decided to go straight. Peter and Lewis have an unconditional friendship similar to the connection those in the military have who served in combat together. A woman who was Lewis’ childhood sweetheart became reconnected to him through Peter since her late husband was his best friend while in the military.
EC: Do you think Peter compares to Jack Reacher?
NP: I am a great fan of Lee Child and think he is a superstar of crime fiction. I think the world surrounding Peter is a bit different from Reacher’s world. I am very frank that I stole from Lee this character who sticks his nose into another person’s business. You know what they say, “Bad artists borrow and great artists steal.” I do see my character as more vulnerable both physically and emotionally.
EC: Do you think PTSD is a character in the book?
NP: Yes. “White static” is a voice in Peter’s head. I wrote in the previous book that it is his “Spidey sense.” It is not quite his conscience, but a voice of his warrior self. Speaking with veterans who have this, they say it is a profound piece of their life. At its worst, it takes out their relationships and friendships. As in many true cases, I had June push Peter to get help. I put in the quote, “Even after months of therapy, part of him still felt like it was his fault, something personally wrong with him. Not just his brain chemistry altered by eight years of war, locked into a fight-or-flight zone.”
EC: Many veterans noted that they feel it is a silent wound and that reintegration is a major problem?
NP: All the military characters in this book have some trouble. Peter had PTSD and feels embarrassed and has panic attacks. He does not want pity, but just for others to understand what he is going through. This is why I put in the quote, “A lot of guys had trouble figuring out how they fit back into their old life or imagining the new one.”
EC: It is interesting that you have bad guys and good guys that were former military?
NP: Of course Peter is the good guy. Marine Col. Daniel Clay Dixon is somewhere in between in that he did some bad things, but when it counted, did what was right. Then there was Leonard Wallis, pure evil, a psychopath who basically enjoys doing bad things and killing people. I wanted to humanize those in the military because sometimes we forget they are people. A veteran told me he hates stories where everyone in the military are heroes because he served with some real jerks. I wanted to show the full spectrum.
EC: Can you explain this quote, “That restless urge toward the fight, like some clattering windup mechanism whose coiled spring never rewound?”
NP: It is that adrenaline rush. I heard this often from those who were in combat. The intensity of the experience is hard to give up. The deployment overseas in a combat zone has every moment with a heightened feeling. I think that is why some have so many deployments. I spoke with this guy who told me after waking up the first thing he did is reach for his gun. It took him six months to lose that reflex. I had this feeling stay with Peter, even now, that tension and alertness. The thread is that war never leaves those who were in combat.
EC: Why the Robert Frost poem at the beginning of the book?
NP: I am a big fan of his. The theme of this book is obligation and what we owe to those we care about. This book is about how they are rescuing each other all the time. It feeds into the veterans I spoke with. They had the attitude of debt and obligation, and how they owed their country and their peers. It is about empathy and connecting with the other person by putting themselves in their shoes.
EC: Do you think the weather plays a role in the plot?
NP: It is a variable. I found it to be very dramatic when I was there. In Denver lighting is a big deal so much so that there are lighting shelters. If you noticed I started and ended in the mountains to bring in the weather as a prop. One of the most vivid scenes in when the gurney was rolling down the mountainside and Peter used it as an escape vehicle. My goal was to put people in the middle of this action sequence as if they were actually there.
EC: What do you want readers to get out of the book?
NP: Of course, an entertaining story. But I also wanted to explore some issues in a substantive way. I hope the novel resonates with people. I wrote the Ash character because I think that we as Americans see the war as an abstract concept. Many have not discussed with those who have come back their emotional and physical scars. I want to show people that there are actually human beings who went to protect us. We should try to understand them as well as thanking them for their service.
EC: Can you give a heads up about your next book?
NP: June and Peter start their life together but since he is not an indoor domesticated creature he is having some problems. It is metaphorical for his life and having to live within society’s norms. She will be in the book, but less of a character. June sends him to Memphis to help a good friend of hers who is a war photographer and is being harassed.