I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes
Atria/Emily Bestler Books, 2014, 624 pages
“Sooner or later, we all sit down to a banquet of consequences”
From the start, I Am Pilgrim unfolded its many layers within layers, methodically shouldering its way to a thrilling end. It starts with a well-planned murder in a sleazy motel room in the US, that winds up being connected with another murder in Turkey, where a majority of the story takes place. Our hero Pilgrim (a man of many names), a highly regarded covert agent for a secret Government group that is so secret, even the CIA isn’t sure if it truly existed, finds himself in the town of Bodrum,Turkey– a town that he knows from his past, a past that holds many chilling memories for him. He is sent on an impossible quest to find the Fundamentalist Muslim terrorist called the Saracen who has not only manufactured a new 100% vaccine resistant strain of Small Pox, but has also found a way to ship 10,000 vials of it, mixed in with America’s newest batch of Flu vaccines. The only problem is that he is a cleanskin without a record, and has a new identity that is unknown to all but a small few. The proverbial needle in a haystack.
At over 600 pages long, I Am Pilgrim was hardly a Summer beach read. It is packed full with international espionage, covert government operations,secret prisons in Thailand, and enough violence to even out the meticulously written plot twists that abound within this most excellent read. It is all at once, a brilliant spy novel, an edge of the seat thriller, and a Film Noir murder mystery. The research alone must have been a time-consuming endeavor, as Hayes deftly and authoritatively maps out the steps involved in engineering a deadly pathogen.The premise of this story is fear-inducing on many levels. Most notably, how this terrorist attack could actually happen in our life time.
We aren’t dealing with an ordinary terrorist here. There will be no suicide vests, or trucks laden with explosives. The Saracen planned his vengeance on the day his father was brutally beheaded in public by the Saudi Royal government, when he was an adolescent. Over a 2 decade period, the Saracen put himself through medical school (on a US scholarship, oh irony), and teaches himself the finer points of virology from once classified plans that are now on the internet. He then moves to Germany and gets a job at the largest Pharmaceuticals company in Europe, and is able to place 10,000 vials of Smallpox in a shipping container going to the US. All of this in order to kill the far away enemy, the U.S., in order to weaken the close enemy, Saudi Arabia. There are so many twists and surprises, and the sleuthing is on par with anything I have read in a Sherlock Holmes novel- making for excellent story telling and character development.
There are about 6 main characters in the book, and there are biographies of each within the story that go into detail about their lives, and what it was that brought them all into the same small world. By the time the last few chapters come up, you will know every reason for every motivation that drove the characters in the direction they went. The character the Saracen is an educated religious fanatic who happens to be a doctor, rather than a stone-aged pipe-bomb making nut. What this book portrays is a situation-that if it were allowed to transpire, would have much the same effect as the great medieval Black Plague – basically a depopulation of earth on a grand scale. That is frightening. In the book, Hayes pretty much painted the United States as totally unprepared for an attack of this nature.
At one point in the story, Pilgrim is interviewing a long-retired virologists for background information on Smallpox. The doctor was lamenting how the U.S. outsourced everything they consumed, that it didn’t make anything anymore. In this way, we have become vulnerable, as he states that
“It’s contamination. Find something ordinary and send your pathogen in from overseas-the new version of the blanket. That’s how a modern, intelligent enemy would do it”
I certainly hope that this book isn’t on the to-read list of any Taliban types.
The action in I Am Pilgrim is pure Spy Film goodness- jumping from boats onto other boats, escaping impossible circumstances by a fraction of an inch, and enough gun play to turn a film version of I Am Pilgrim into an instant blockbuster. For a first Novel, Terry Hayes has written an intelligent, action-packed, bio-terror-spy-thriller that includes extras such as some art history, scientific manipulations, a lesbian love triangle and some poignancy to add humanity to the dread. I highly recommend I Am Pilgrim to fans of Mystery, thrillers, Spy novels, and action-adventure. The writing is much more highly evolved than your garden variety spy thrillers, with well developed characters and a great ending that blows up on the page.
(5 out of 5)