When a book has a quote on the cover that proclaims it as “the only thriller you need to read this year”, you may think that’s hyperbole but sooner or later you might be interested in finding out what all the fuss is about. Especially if you’ve seen quite a few people reading it on the Tube.
The thriller in question is I am Pilgrim, the debut novel by journalist and screenwriter Terry Hayes. Be warned, though – once you get started on this, you won’t want to put it down. It’s smart, complex and very compelling.
The story begins at a murder scene in New York. The narrator is the Pilgrim of the title, a man of many aliases who used to work for an ultra-secret US intelligence department – he was, of course, their best agent – but left after 9/11. Since then, he wrote a highly-regarded book on forensic pathology (published under a false name) and has used his fieldcraft to disappear under a false identity and move to Paris in a doomed attempt to leave the secret world behind him and try to lead something approaching a normal life. However, he gets tracked down by a determined NYPD homicide cop who has been inspired by his book – which is how Pilgrim ends up helping to investigate a murder in which the killer appears to have drawn inspiration from said book to create a situation where the police can’t even identify the victim, let alone the killer. Subsequently, the US government comes back into his life – as well as a suicide that may not be all it seems in Turkey, there’s a big terrorist plot against America, but they don’t know who’s behind it, where the plot is being hatched or what form the attack will take. Only Pilgrim can figure this out.
Running alongside this are some flashbacks in which we get to see how Pilgrim became involved in, and later disillusioned with, the secret world. We also get to see another series of flashbacks that track the life of the novel’s antagonist, a character known only as the Saracen – a Saudi boy who witnesses his father’s beheading, became disillusioned with his mother’s tentative embracing of Western values and went off to fight the Russians in Afghanistan. Having thus become a Muslim fundamentalist, he went on to become a doctor in Beirut but, having adopting a false identity, he is himself nigh-on untraceable. From this position, he sets about planning a spectacular act of bio-terrorism on US soil – without so much as setting foot in the country itself.
This parallel plot device is similar to the cat-and-mouse layout of Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal, which follows both the titular assassin and the detective who’s on his trail until they finally meet at the novel’s climax. This is somewhat appropriate, for The Day of the Jackal, first published in 1971, was in many senses the first modern thriller (the first thriller having been John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps, first published a century ago and never out of print since).
I am Pilgrim is, at 896 pages, a long book but this gives Hayes the chance to go deep into the characters of both Pilgrim and the Saracen. We get the extensive back-stories of both men – the adopted, Harvard-educated spook who’s more than capable of getting information out of Swiss bankers and bumping off just about anyone if required to do so but has a vulnerable side when it comes to the subject of his foster-parents, and the radicalised Islamist who will stop at nothing (in one memorably gruesome scene, he even removes someone’s eyes so that he can beat the iris-recognition software in a top-secret Damascus laboratory) in his quest to bring the mighty USA to its knees. At times, the book’s fast-paced plot, spectacular set-pieces and array of locations feel like it should be a movie (which I don’t doubt it will be at some point), which is in a sense appropriate as Hayes’s background is in movie screenwriting.
All in all, those commuters who were engrossed in this novel really were onto something. I am Pilgrim is definitely worth a read.