Crime Mystery Thriller War

I Am Pilgrim – Terry Hayes

15 October 2018
I Am Pilgrim Book Cover I Am Pilgrim
Terry Hayes
Random House

Can you commit the perfect crime? Pilgrim is the codename for a man who doesn't exist. The adopted son of a wealthy American family, he once headed up a secret espionage unit for US intelligence. Before he disappeared into anonymous retirement, he wrote the definitive book on forensic criminal investigation. But that book will come back to haunt him. It will help NYPD detective Ben Bradley track him down. And it will take him to a rundown New York hotel room where the body of a woman is found facedown in a bath of acid, her features erased, her teeth missing, her fingerprints gone.

It is a textbook murder - and Pilgrim wrote the book. What begins as an unusual and challenging investigation will become a terrifying race-against-time to save America from oblivion. Pilgrim will have to make a journey from a public beheading in Mecca to a deserted ruins on the Turkish coast via a Nazi death camp in Alsace and the barren wilderness of the Hindu Kush in search of the faceless man who would commit an appalling act of mass murder in the name of his God.

If you want to be free, all you have to do is let go.

An incredible debut novel from an author better known for their screenwriting work such as Mad Max 2 and From Hell, Terry Hayes has delivered a gripping and genuinely unpredictable story that refuses to be boxed into a single genre. Several seemingly unrelated tales spanning various subjects, decades, and genre-traits are beautifully interwoven into a singular compelling narrative with twists and turns that would be deserving of the silver screen.

The segmented novel covers self-contained yet interconnected stories and writing styles that ranged from espionage and spy subterfuge thriller to hard-boiled detective noir, wrapped within a story of war and terrorism and a doomsday event, in turn, encased within a broken man’s search for new purpose. On the exterior you will recognise considerable movie tropes and somewhat unavoidable cliches with a save the world narrative, however, this is just exposition, not the experience.

The core premise sees a former US CIA operative take on a one-man-band Islamic Terrorist who has devised a worryingly realistic means of mass murder. It’s a race against time, yet uncharacteristically this book absolutely takes its time and embraces complexity much to benefit of the story. Both the protagonist and antagonist have fleshed out believable backgrounds with few punches spared, their journeys are documented from childhood through to key pivotal moments that define the characters and world around them. Decades of sub-stories, achievements and failures build these characters into who they need to be to deliver the satisfying zenith. A wonderful example of cause and effect, of micro-decisions which establish rewarding resolutions that really should have came across as contrived, yet don’t. With hindsight, it’s perhaps even more impressive how the dominoes are masterfully led out under the reader’s nose throughout the experience.

The characterisation of the protagonist, Pilgrim, and the juxtaposition of their very human flaws, combined with seemingly superhuman skills in deduction and other unexpected talents provides a balanced realism, whilst straying close to the line of disbelief or typical plot devices. I Am Pilgrim does a good job of impressing us with the characters’ machinations without falling into the common trap of convenient MacGuffins or elements which exist only to move the story forward.

Burke said the problem with war is that it usually consumes the very things that you’re fighting for—justice, decency, humanity—and I couldn’t help but think of how many times I had violated our nation’s deepest values in order to protect them.
― Pilgrim

There will be concerns or complaints about the American-centric viewpoint at times of the characters (even though the author is an English-born Australian), especially with references to 911 and plot elements which relate to The War on Terror. However this is both scathing and self-deprecatory as well as sympathetic or defensive, and it is always contained within the accepted narrative bias of the characters themselves.

Conversely, even the apparent bad guys, including murderers and Jihadi terrorists manage to attract some level of sympathy and understanding. Against all odds of the big screen movie villain style script, these characters receive a welcome amount of exposition and perspective. Nothing in this novel happens without rhyme nor reason. Indeed at times, the climax feels more like a race between competing characters (enemies) at the top of their game, rather than the typical unsophisticated bad vs good portrayal we’ve come to expect from Hollywood.

At times there are difficult truths and historical facts delivered that may rattle some feathers, this is delivered without apology. It’s not trying to be politically correct, it’s aiming for raw authenticity, the story and settings are gritty, the character motivations are unforgiving …in short, it’s grounded and compelling. Whilst there is over-the-top heroism at times, nobody walks away whole, no good deed goes unpunished. The lead character operates in the realm of the grey, he’s an anti-hero, pragmatic to a fault, and the novel follows suit.

Buy the book.

Peter Donnelly

Founder of The Reading Desk, supporting readers, authors, publishers and book industry. Top Reviewer on Amazon, Goodreads, and NetGalley

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