Title: I Am Pilgrim
Author: Terry Hayes
Hayes, Terry (2014). I Am Pilgrim: A Thriller. New York: Emily Bestler Books/Atria Books
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 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.
 Janet Maslin, Books of the Times, “A Superspy Races to Halt Armaggedon,”The New York Times (June 16, 2014). Downloaded January 6, 2017