I Am Pilgrim

Title:                      I Am Pilgrim

Author:                Terry Hayes

Hayes, Terry (2014). I Am Pilgrim: A Thriller. New York: Emily Bestler Books/Atria Books

LCCN:    2013362545

PR6108.A9675 I15 2014


  • “The astonishing story of one man’s breakneck race against time . . . and an implacable enemy. An anonymous young woman murdered in a run-down hotel, all identifying characteristics dissolved by acid. A father publicly beheaded in the blistering heat of a Saudi Arabian public square. A notorious Syrian biotech expert found eyeless in a Damascus junkyard. Smoldering human remains on a remote mountainside in Afghanistan. A flawless plot to commit an appalling crime against humanity. One path links them all, and only one man can make the journey. Pilgrim” — from publisher’s web site.
  • Pilgrim is the code name for a world class and legendary secret agent. His adversary is known only as the Saracen. As a young boy, the Saracen saw his dissident father beheaded in a Saudi Arabian public square, creating a burning desire to destroy the special relationship between the US and the Kingdom. When a woman’s body is found in a seedy hotel near Ground Zero, the techniques are pulled from a cult classic of forensic science that Pilgrim wrote under a pen name. In offering the NYPD assistance with the case, Pilgrim gets pulled back into the intelligence underground.


Date Posted:      January 6, 2017

Review by Janet Maslin[1] A Superspy Races to Halt Armaggedon

Neither its plot nor its provenance do much to recommend Terry Hayes’s I Am Pilgrim. So it’s all the more surprising that this first novel by a screenwriter of films not renowned for their dialogue turns out to be the most exciting desert island read of the season.

Yes, the 600 or so action-packed pages are headed toward a showdown between a brave and ultra-brilliant American secret agent and an equally fearless jihadi terrorist. But neither is written as a stereotype; the two don’t meet until the end of the story; and this book has the whole globe to trot around before that. There are more than enough subplots and flashbacks to keep readers riveted. The American agent’s wild array of past exploits could fill a book of their own.

Despite Mr. Hayes’s long history as a movie guy (his credits include “Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior” and “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome” ), I Am Pilgrim is not a film treatment bloated into book form. It’s a big, breathless tale of nonstop suspense, and it has something rarely found in big-budget movies of the same genre: the voice of a single writer instead of the patchwork nonsense created by endless collaborators and fixers. Mr. Hayes delivers his share of far-fetched moments, and no doubt he’d like to see I Am Pilgrim filmed some day. But he’s his own worst enemy in that regard. His novel will be hard for any movie version to beat.

The screenwriter in Mr. Hayes mandates that I Am Pilgrim begin with a big, lurid crime scene. So our narrator, who goes by many fake names, is summoned to a hotel room in Lower Manhattan in the aftermath of Sept. 11. There, in the midst of the chaos, is a once-hot-looking woman who has been killed in a way that erases all signs of her identity. It’s almost as if the killer had followed guidelines described in the secret but worshipfully regarded forensics manual our guy wrote, under the fake name Jude Garrett, for a secret subsidiary of the C.I.A.

With lightning speed, and with logic best not examined too closely, Mr. Hayes greatly widens his book’s canvas after this New York scene. We find out about how, our main man, now 32, spent his early years on an estate in Greenwich, Conn.; was faking his identity, even as a boy; and has earned his reputation as a lethal spy but fears that he must give up a “a thing most people call love, I suppose.” As he puts it, “I wanted to walk along a beach with someone and not think about how far a sniper can fire.” Maybe that’s possible in a sequel, but he won’t be taking any slow, romantic strolls this time.

Cut to Saudi Arabia, where the mind of a teenage terrorist is being formed. Allowing for the fact that few mainstream Western writers have much insight into such characters, Mr. Hayes does what he can to breathe life into the ideas of hatred and vengeance as life-altering motivations. (He has also written screenplays for Mel Gibson.) So this boy, who will come to be known as the Saracen, has his fate determined by his father’s. “Only in a police state does a child pray for nothing more serious than a crippling accident to have befallen their parent,” Mr. Hayes writes. Grammarians who howl at popular fiction like Dan Brown’s books can find a lot to work with here, too.

After Mr. Hayes writes, more movingly than gruesomely, of how the boy is affected by his father’s public beheading (his crime: disparaging the royal family), he raises the rage level: The family’s widowed mother must now get a job, which somehow entails exposing her face and wearing Gucci sunglasses. That’s it: The son goes into exile, determined to learn how to wage war against America. A couple of decades later, having roamed from Bahrain to Afghanistan to Germany, he is ready and able.

The Saracen becomes a doctor and, after experimenting shockingly on human guinea pigs, perfects a new, improved strain of plague that is vaccine-proof. On a parallel track, our guy—who will ultimately be known as Pilgrim (no clue as to whether this is meant to evoke John Wayne)—is recruited at the highest level (enter the president of the United States) to ward off a terrible but mysterious threat to the nation, a threat that turns the last part of the book into a race against the clock.

Mr. Hayes aligns his characters very ingeniously for this final part of the story, to the point where even that initial New York murder has something to do with it, and all the loose ends begin to come together. By this point, the Saracen and Pilgrim are a couple so clearly made for each other that the reader can hardly wait for them to meet. The setting, like all this book’s settings, is too picturesque for words. Mr. Hayes seems to have done backbreaking travel to some of the world’s most beautiful places in the name of research for his peripatetic story.

This author excels at a foreshadowing that is nothing if not galvanizing: “I headed back down the crumbling passage, deeper into the gloom. There was one thing, however, that I had overlooked, and for the rest of my life I would wonder about the mistake I made.” But at its all-important finale, I Am Pilgrim suffers a fit of Hollywooditis, and abandons some of the toughness it has worked so hard to develop. This book doesn’t exactly end; it just stops, and Mr. Hayes does whatever he must to make that happen. At the price of credibility, he paves the way for a sequel. It’s not a fair trade.

[1] Janet Maslin, Books of the Times, “A Superspy Races to Halt Armaggedon,”The New York Times (June 16, 2014). Downloaded January 6, 2017

Plum Island

Title:                      Plum Island

Author:                Nelson DeMille

DeMille, Nelson (1997). Plum Island. New York: Warner Books

LCCN:    97007221

PS3554.E472 P57 1997


Date Posted:      January 6, 2017


Since The Charm School (1988)[2], DeMille’s page-turning skills have only improved, peaking with The Gold Coast (1990), faltering on Spencerville (1994), and returning to form with this trip back to the Long Island venue of The Gold Coast. This time, DeMille limns not the Fitzgeraldian wealth of Oyster Bay but rather the North Fork’s comfortably well-off–but less-fancy citizens. An NYPD homicide detective, John Corey, has moved into his uncle’s fine digs overlooking Great Peconic Bay. Restlessly recuperating from wounds received in the line of duty, he’s happy to answer the summons of the Chief of the Southold Town PD, an old friend, who hires him to consult on the double murder of Tom and Judy Gordon, biologists who worked on (nonfictional) Plum Island, the site of animal disease research for the Department of Agriculture. Were the Gordons murdered because they’d stolen some valuable new vaccine, or even a dreaded virus? They’d obviously far outspent their income, living high on the hog and buying a very expensive and speedy powerboat as well as an acre of bluff overlooking the bay. Had they been running drugs? Corey doesn’t think so, although an ice chest missing from their boat points to something forbidden being hauled from Plum Island. He teams up with Beth Penrose, a Southold detective working her first homicide. Their visit to the Plum Island research facility and the Gordons’ labs reveals only that the FBI and CIA have sanitized the place and have run up false information for public consumption. Corey also falls in with the star-crossed Emma Whitestone, a researcher of historic artifacts and an expert on Captain Kidd’s lost treasure, which is thought to be buried somewhere nearby. Among the murder suspects is nasty viniculturalist Fredric Tobin, a smoothie who lures the ladies with champagne and Concorde jets. Heavy wisecracking keeps the fun flowing as DeMille cranks up a thrilling, entertaining plot.

[1] Kirkus, downloaded January 6, 2017

[2] DeMille, Nelson (1988). The Charm School. New York, NY: Warner Books

The Moscow Vector

Title:                      The Moscow Vector

Author:                  Patrick Larkin

Larkin, Patrick (2008). Robert Ludlum’s The Moscow Vector. New York : St. Martin’s Griffin

LCCN:    2005048378

PS3612.A65 R63 2005


Date Updated:  November 6, 2015

Generally, I like Ludlum books, even when co-written. That is not true for other writers, such as Clancy and Cussler. In those cases the characters remain the same, but the stories ring like lead bells to me.

In The Moscow Vector, one might think that time would have taken its toll on the crusty, disgruntled Soviet dinosaurs who want to return Russia to its Communist glory days, but evidently not. Larkin, the lead writer of Ludlum’s Covert One series, has dreamed up a new bunch of hard-liners, armed with HYDRA, a designer poison that singles out and kills victims based on DNA.

With HYDRA having dispatched numerous U.S. and allied intelligence agents, Russian President Viktor Dudarev is poised to launch Operation ZHUKOV, a takeover strike against Kazakhstan, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia and half of Ukraine. Leading a covert investigation of HYDRA is series regular Lt. Col. Jonathan Smith, U.S. Army molecular biologist and chief operative of super secret spy agency Covert One.

There’s nothing particularly new—HYDRA is an unwieldy weapon (it must be tailor-made for each victim), and super-sleuth Jon spends far too much time ferreting out information that readers have known for hundreds of pages. The threat of a Russian takeover of lost territory may not raise the temperature high enough, and various subplots, such as an attempted assassination of the U.S. president, don’t amount to much. There are plenty of excellent shoot-outs, but Larkin’s last outing, The Lazarus Vendetta, was far more cutting edge.

The Outlaws

Title:                      The Outlaws

Author:                   W. E. B. Griffin

Griffin, W. E. B. (2010) and William E. Butterworth IV. The Outlaws: A Presidential Agent Novel. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons

LCCN:    2010032234

PS3557.R489137 O88 2010


  • Charlie Castillo’s secret unit has been disbanded, but that doesn’t mean he’s out of business. A FedEx package arrives, bearing photos of barrels containing some of the most dangerous biohazard materials on Earth, all of which were supposed to have been destroyed during a raid on a secret Russian factory in the Congo. Who has them, and what do they want? Castillo has a feeling he’s not going to like the answers.


Date Updated:      November 2, 2015

I like Griffin novels. That is, I like novels written by W. E. B. Griffin, period. I don’t find his collaborative novels, such as this one with his son, all that good. I suspect that Griffin wrote the outline (maybe with collaboration) and that Butterworth filled in the story, maybe with changes suggested by Griffin. At any rate, this book cannot measure up to the quality of Hostage, the first in this series.

In Griffin and Butterworth’s sixth presidential agent thriller (after Black Ops), the U.S. president has ordered Lt. Col. Carlos “Charley” Castillo to disband his secret organization, the Office of Organizational Analysis, and to “fall off the face of the earth.” Charlie Castillo’s secret unit has been disbanded-but that doesn’t mean he’s out of business.

When the president dies of a ruptured aorta, Charley elects instead to reorganize his outfit. As experience has painfully shown him, there are many things the intelligence community can’t do, won’t do, or doesn’t do well, and he has the people and assets to help set things straight.

The first opportunity, when it comes, is shocking: A FedEx package arrives, bearing photos of barrels containing some of the most dangerous biohazard materials on earth, all of which were supposed to have been destroyed during a raid on a secret Russian factory in the Congo. Who has them, and what do they want? Castillo has a feeling he’s not going to like the answers.

Castillo soon becomes entangled in intrigue involving several barrels of virulent biological weaponry and a demand from Vladimir Putin to return the two Russian spies who defected in Black Ops. The new U.S. president, who hates Charley’s guts, wants to turn him over to Putin along with the two defectors. Charley and his intrepid gang engage in meticulous planning, fill in the backstory, banter among themselves, and fly around in exotic planes. Series fans who love these characters will find the novel fulfilling; newcomers and those expecting a big payoff will be disappointed. I am increasingly disappointed with the “contributions” that Butterworth appears to be making. It just isn’t the old Griffin whose books I have really enjoyed.


Title:                  Bio Strike

Author:                Jerome Preisler

Preisler, Jerome (2000). Tom Clancy’s Power Plays: Bio-Strike. New York: Berkley Publishing.

LCCN:    2002597808

PS3566.R354 T65 2000


Date Updated:  April 27, 2015

Bio Strike is one of a series, “Powerplays”, developed by Tom Clancy and Martin Greenberg. The plot centers on the criminal mastermind Harlan DeVane, who has developed a biological disease capable of wiping out selected groups or individuals –  depending on the trigger used. The whole world has been infected without knowing it and considerable space is given to explaining how this is done.

The dramatic conflict in this novel is between DeVane who holds a grudge against Roger Gordian, head of UpLink Technologies. UpLink is a thread in all of the Powerplays novels. Gordian a highly successful businessman but is also on a mission to improve the world in general. DeVane does a trial run of the virus, triggering it Gordian. It’s up to his team of agents to battle frantically to save him.

The author obviously did a great deal of research to make the biology and technology sound realistic. Aware that many readers know nothing about biotechnology, the author burdens the reader with overkill of explanation. For nerds like me, I like his terminology. Some may be bored at the level to which he goes, for example, to explain how an e-mail server works.

Techno-freaks will like the series, as it is quite imaginative about cyberproblems we may encounter. Undoubtedly business and governments will be attacked in unexpected cyberterrorism and fantasizing about it may help develop countermeasures even before the threat is real. For that reason I like the series. The characters, too, are believable, not always the case in novels with a lot of science and technology.