‘I Am Pilgrim’ by Terry Hayes opens with an elite intelligence agent codenamed Pilgrim being brought out of retirement to investigate the brutal murder of a woman in the rundown Eastside Inn in New York whose identifying features have all been dissolved with acid. Meanwhile, Pilgrim is also attempting to track down a Saudi Arabian doctor known as the Saracen who was radicalised after his father was publicly beheaded and is seeking revenge by unleashing a deadlier version of smallpox on the United States. It later transpires that the two investigations are closely linked.
‘I am Pilgrim’ is a debut novel although it doesn’t always read like one. Hayes has already had a successful career as a screenplay writer and this is definitely evident in some of the main setpieces of the story which are very cinematic in scope set in various locations across the world and often very gruesome. The character of Pilgrim also known as Scott Murdoch has a solid background for a secret agent as the adopted son of a wealthy American family and there is a lot of detail about both his and the Saracen’s past.
The main strands of the plot – which sees Pilgrim trying to solve a murder mystery and foil a bioterrorist plot, later followed by another murder mystery – could easily have been developed into separate novels and I’m still undecided as to whether or not it was a good idea for Hayes to include all of these ideas in one book. It probably doesn’t help that the plot hinges on some pretty far-fetched and sometimes downright ridiculous coincidences to create the links between the storylines. I thought it was particularly odd that Hayes draws on real events, most notably 9/11, while fictionalising other key elements such as creating entirely different US presidents. However, thrillers also wouldn’t be much fun if they were entirely plausible or if the bad guys were always caught at the first hurdle. The plot is satisfying if you are happy to be swept along with it and has a neat ending. Moreover, apart from a bit of a lull about three quarters of the way through, the pace is sustained consistently throughout which is impressive given that it is one of the longest books I’ve read this year.
I would recommend ‘I Am Pilgrim’ if you are looking for some absorbing escapism. However, this book has definitely confirmed for me that I prefer action thrillers on screen rather than on the page. Blockbusters are not exactly renowned for their subtlety whereas it is harder to get the balance right in a novel, particularly where characters are concerned. Film rights for ‘I Am Pilgrim’ have been sold to MGM and I would be interested in seeing how it’s adapted for the big screen (just as long as I don’t have to watch the scene with the eyes…).