If you spend enough time at literary festivals, you come to fear and loathe the 'goody bag' - a delightfully marketed sling-bag full of books you never want to read and don't quite know what to do with.
Until it isn't that: the goody bag at Harrogate Crime Fest last weekend contained a small 'taster' booklet that offered the first chapter of I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes. I read it late on Saturday night, bought the book on Sunday and started reading it on Monday. I finished it late last night and it's been a fantastic week's read: a big, solid, chunky, fast-paced, rip-roaring thriller, the love child of a manic union between Jack Reacher and James Bond.
The pace and international flavour shouldn't be a surprise: from the start, this reads like the book of the film and that film will be a blockbuster. This is a debut novel, and (sorry, this is a cliche, but it's true) an astonishing feat that makes sense when we know that the author has been a journalist for the Sydney Morning Herald, covered the Watergate scandal and went on to be a screenwriter on such luminaries as Mad Max 2, Payback and Bangkok Hilton. So when we have Bondian 'hero escapes from insuperable odds' scenes set in giant warehouses with ships on gantries being sent hither and thither and our hero hanging by one arm, desperately trying not to be recognised by the Turkish police... it's easy to imagine it on a big screen with all the action and adrenaline and testosterone.
But the book isn't all that: the premise is clever. The narrator, whom we know primarily as Scott Murdoch - although we know that wasn't his birth name - is a member of the US's 'Department' - the spies who spy on spies - a kind of Military police for the CIA - staffed with people so deniable that even the department's existence is held secret. Pilgrim (as he becomes) starts of well by executing the corrupt leader in broad daylight in Moscow's Red Square and his life goes downhill from there until the point where he's asked to be the lone 'Pathfinder' sent out to Turkey to discover all he can about a man who seems to be planning a massive bio-terror attack. Actually, it's *the* worst bio-terror attack you could imagine: engineered smallpox which will rip through the world's population and reduced it to a fraction of what it was at the start.
Woven through the spy-hunting-terrorist plot is a secondary spy-helping-NYPD plot which follows the investigation of a murder in a grimy New York hotel. What makes it different was that both the victim and - so our hero thinks - the perpetrator were women. So we have a possible lesbian subplot which is always entertaining and certainly becomes so here.
The two plots inevitably collide in a small Turkish town, but not before we've been to Paris, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Bulgaria and seen side plots in London and Thailand. It's a vast, intricate, wonder of a book, full of clever use of technology and - I'm sure - a lot of research into how smallpox might rationally be spread. It also sounds a loud and clear warning: if the US government's planning is as woefully inadequate as the books suggests, then our civilisation's days are numbered.
I'm sure this will be a stellar hit, but get it early and be one of the pathfinders: It's a fantastic, fun, high-adrenaline read for the summer: just the thing to fill days on the beach or evenings at home.
on 7 August 2014
I'll say right out that some of the one star commenters make fair points but give them too much weight. The book does have far-fetched scenarios, such as light sensitive mirrors, but since when did a few stretchers get in the way of a good yarn? It also has over-painted minor characters, like the Turkish hotel manager whose charmingly idiosyncatic English would benefit from the less-is-more touch. Most importantly, the author's anti-Islamic and at one point anti-union views cut through the voices of omniscient narrator and central protagonist. But even here I had no trouble separating enjoyment of a gripping story from political opinions too infrequently stated to seriously get in the way. (Those who can't make such a separation might ask themselves why on earth they're reviewing at all on tax-avoiding, zero-hours-contract-loving Amazon!)
That gripping yarn factor gets this book three easy stars from me. The fourth is on account of some superb touches, like the scene where hero discovers real identity of woman phone caller and, to conceal an excitement which might give too much away, simultaneously issues excellent life coaching to an embittered musician. Hayes is also good on adversarial dialogue, a must for me in thrillers, and - like that other flawed but thoroughly-enjoyable-when-you're-in-the-mood pensman, Lee Child - delivers the goods when it's time for the bad guys, major and minor, to get their come-uppances.
You know a novel has gotten under your skin when the characters start to inhabit your dreams - and I'm someone who doesn't even remember his dreams. There were parts that slightly annoyed me - parts that were preposterous and parts where the author overused a certain technique. However in the end, it was also preposterously entertaining and it is for that reason that I'm giving it 4 stars (though a more honest mark would probably have been 3.5 stars).
The good: The opening chapters are a thrill ride and a half. The discovery of the body in the hotel and the gradual realisation of what the killer had done were written superbly, uppping the thrill ante. The novel races along at a fair pace. As other reviewers have noted, this was written like a big budget thriller - an unsurprising fact considering the author's background. One look at the acknowledgements page shows a fair few Academy Award insiders. I actually don't consider it a bad thing. I want to be entertained and this novel certainly did that. Big, bold and spanning exotic locations like a James Bond film. Saracen was written quite sympathetically - especially towards the end and I was glad that he was portrayed as more than a mad muahhaha-I-expect-you-to-die type of terrorist.
The annoying: Terry Hayes operates a writing technique so many times that it got slightly irritating - the "If only..." So many chapters had that built in; for example he would describe situations and then end it with "If only I had observed closer I would have realised my mistake" - type of sentences. I know this generates tension and makes you wonder what will happen next. However, too many times and it just plain irritated me.
The other bit that I didn't quite understand was, if the Pilgrim is narrating the whole novel, how did he find out the intricate details of how Saracen stole what he was looking for - and what he did to the people he tested it on? Maybe I missed something but I remember being a little bemused at time of reading.
But these are just minor points in what is essentially a blockbuster fast moving read. If you just want a thrill with some serious points thrown in, you will enjoy this as much as I did. All in all, a good read!
on 18 December 2014
I am Pilgrim has been touted as the epitome of the thriller genre since its release last year. Written by Terry Hayes, a former Hollywood scriptwriter, it follows Pilgrim, the once leader of a deep-cover US agency, as he attempts to discover a normal life outside of the 'secret world'. Dragged back into the mucky business after involving himself with a nasty murder at the bequest of his policeman friend, Ben Bradley, we follow him all over the world (but mostly to Turkey) as he attempts to unravel the plot of the creation and dissemination of a potentially apocalyptic smallpox virus by an Islamic fundamentalist.
You will immediately realise that Hayes has worked on big budget Hollywood movies as his novel reads just like a film script ideally suited for, say, a Tom Cruise type actor. His writing style is straightforward, his descriptions sparse on metaphor, simile and analogy. He reminds me of Matthew Reilly (a guilty pleasure of mine) in that his prose is engagingly simple whilst being largely unrealistic. Hayes' evident research for the novel is admirable as he comprehensively covers a number of obscure procedures and tasks I'd barely even heard of. I am Pilgrim is the ultimate disengage-your-brain novel and, as long as you like to spend lots of time on the beach - the book weighs in at some 890 pages - would make perfect holiday reading material. Fortunately the book's chapters are mostly short and easily digestible, allowing the reader the opportunity to read in short bursts if so required. I'd say overall I mostly enjoyed the novel but there were a great number of things throughout the book that bothered me and decreased my enjoyment and eventual rating.
I'll start with Pilgrim himself. Hayes attempts to paint him as a wholesome and endearing hero but I found him irritating pretty much from the off. He is caring towards a disabled child at one moment and executing a father-of-two with extreme prejudice the next. He claims not to be boastful and then proceeds to boasts about his appearance and abilities throughout the entire novel. He is the adopted child of a multi-billionaire couple to whom he showed little compassion and the regret of this plays on his mind at every opportunity. In my opinion he comes across as a poorer and more obnoxious version of Bruce Wayne.
Pilgrim wishes to escape from the 'secret world' yet proceeds to make some pretty inexplicable decisions that only serve to bring his existence to the eye of the public and any watchful foes. He writes a book under an (obviously flimsy as Bradley uncovers him with only the help of his wife) alias and attends a conference against his better judgement during which he is discovered by just the kind of people he has been attempting to avoid. Not exactly the brightest moves for a seasoned deep-cover operative to undertake, I should imagine.
Pilgrim's aptitude for his job as the world's most accomplished elite agent is constantly drawn into question. For someone supposedly at the top of their game Pilgrim comes across as hopelessly inept. He is constantly making mistakes, misjudging situations, and flagrantly ignoring protocol. There are a great many chapters to this book and the majority of them end with Pilgrim admitting to making a mistake. He repeatedly comes across as unobservant and inattentive in critical situations and, for the most part, any breakthrough he discovers falls over-conveniently into his lap, owing more to luck than any skill or feat of astounding detective work. I'm aware that the novel would be much less exciting if Pilgrim was absolutely accomplished in his role, but his constant lack of attention and major oversights quickly began to grate on me and made his unlikely back story and rise through the ranks (incidentally his quick-fire promotion to Rider of the Blue reads like he was awarded the job solely for having an itchy trigger finger) even less convincing.
I feel Hayes also allows his own personal political views to shine through his writing. He is often dismissive of the cultures and beliefs of foreigners and there are varying levels of unnecessary xenophobia. The most glaring instances of this involve Pilgrim mentally dismissing a taxi driver as a woman-stoning mentalist just for looking at him unusually and a totally needless summarising of the Japanese people based on the actions of their forefathers during the Second World War. The US, however, seems to escape any criticism and there is plenty of American jingoism included within the novel which I found odd as the author is of English/Australian descent. Perhaps he has spent too much time living in Hollywood...
The story is told from a first person perspective but often Hayes drifts into third person accidentally. Pilgrim also has a strange omniscience which allows him to explain every last detail of situations, intel and incidents at which he had not been present and as such should have no way of knowing about. I found this change of voice and otherworldly ability rather jarring and, unfortunately, they become more prevalent as the story went on.
There are possible spoilers ahead as I feel I must talk a little about the ending of the book. Look away from this paragraph now if you do not wish to uncover snippets from the conclusion of the story! Many people find the ending of I am Pilgrim to be disappointing. I actually thought it to read rather well and it rounded off the tale in decent fashion. I do, however, acknowledge that the ploy used to stop the Saracen's plan in its tracks was pretty weak. Would our bad guy give up his entire life's work to prevent a single death when the promise of paradise was awaiting on the other side? His ultimate decision becomes even more unlikely when you consider the smallpox virus he himself synthesised was likely to do just the job Pilgrim was threatening at the finale.
Despite the negatives I've went into above (and I know they appear to be many) I still enjoyed the book for the most part. Despite being a huge tome I proceeded through the numerous pages at quite a speed and found, as mentioned in some other reviews, the story strangely addictive. The book, despite annoying me at times, never felt like a chore and I never found myself dreading picking it up to read (I have to finish any book I start, a curse that I bear with great frustration). It works well as a thriller for the most part but I found Pilgrim's many flaws and questionable attitude dampened my enjoyment somewhat as I couldn't fully cheer on the protagonist. If you like big budget, pro-US action flicks and don't mind turning off your brain for 800-odd pages of often clumsy espionage thriller then I am Pilgrim is worth reading.
on 18 August 2014
I really need to stop reading reviews of books. I am Pilgrim was not the sort of book I’d usually pick up. I’m not averse to the odd thriller, especially on holiday, but the whole Macho thing really doesn’t do it for me. This one seemed a bit different though, so I gave it a try.
It’s a big old book, but has handily short chapters for the short of attention. Handy for reading on a long car journey.
The premise is basically as follows: The greatest spy in the world has retired at the grand old age of 34, but has been lured back into the game by an heroic, patriot who saved thousands of lives in 9/11. He is initially investigating a murder, but is sucked in to a plot to find a Saudi Arabian who is about to create a holocaust of innocent Americans by synthesising a super-deadly Small-Pox virus in his garage. Interspersed with this is a lot of angst about what the greatest spy in the world used to do in his early days and about how his traumatic childhood (mother killed; adopted by billionaires and given a prilvileged upbringing) still affects him.
I will admit, I enjoyed the pace and the sheer bonkersness of the plot, but became increasingly unsettled by the rampant Islamophobia and lazy writing throughout. For a highly educated government official, much of the protagonist’s comments appeared to come straight fromt eh mouth of a furriner-hating Sun reader. I found myself increasingly unsure about whether it was the author’s point of view I was seeing; the protagonist’s or America’s. One part of the novel, where people are going to be profiled at airports, states that it will be ‘difficult for muslims’. Why?Does one’s religion appear on one’s passport now? There seemed to be a constant confusion between religion and nationality throughout the novel, which you usually find on facebook.
Mind you, the author was fond of his stereotypes. Americans, by and large, were all good guys. The Cop expresses surprise twice that Americans would torture people “We do that to people?”. Apparently throughout Europe, bars fell quiet on 9/11, as if the whole world was in mourning. That’s not quite how I remember it, but ok. Turkish police are all corrupt. Italians are lazy (and make rubbish cars). British people, and here he bravely moves away from stereotypes, don’t all have posh accents – this one has a thick North Country accent. Women are all beautiful (apart from the fat nanny, or childminder, as they’re usually known if they don’t come to your house), especially lesbians. I was surprised to see Bodrum depicted as a kind of Turkish Monaco though; I think British readers will probably know it more of a Turkish Blackpool.
I wondered early on whether Hayes was trying to emulate Chandler – the quote at the front of the novel and clumsy attempts at his style would suggest it, but it almost became a parody of the spy genre. I quite liked the description of someone having a face ‘like an unmade bed’ – but then I saw it again and realised it was just lazy.
So, if you don’t mind having a load of stereotypes hurled at you, you can cope with a 1000 page love song to America and you can suspend disbelief, go for it. I expected finely drawn, deep characterisation, a more balanced view of the reasons behind the conflicts and was disappointed. Will be sticking to Nick Harkaway for troubled spies; he’s more believable.
on 21 August 2014
I Am Pilgrim is the first novel by screenwriter Terry Hayes. Before I start over-analysing and “ruining” the book for you let me explain the reason this book was awarded 5 starts by me: it’s absolutely gripping. You simply can’t put it down, and though it is long, it is built from numerous small scenes so it flies by you in no-time.
Having said that, the book that has already been declared the next “Jason Bourne” is not flawless. The hero, later known as Scott Murdoch, narrates his story of being a member in an American elite intelligence and covert ops team called “the Division”. Meanwhile he also tells us a gripping tale of the Saracen, a nameless former mujahedin, set-out to bring America to its knees with an appalling mega bio terrorist attack.
The two stories run parallel, while at the same time we learn of Scott’s personal history as well as the tales of his numerous former operations. We also learn of his abilities a brilliant crime investigator, as he helps in a murder investigation in lower town Manhattan.
If you have read so far then I managed to interest you without giving away any spoilers... The problematic parts of the novel is that as it progresses, the what seemed to be plausible plot at first -- grows more and more detached from reality (or reality as us regular people know it). Plus, at some point in the novel, the narrator’s stories from the past are a bit of a nuisance. Whereas they are much needed at the beginning to understand what’s going on, they are redundant in the final acts of the novel, when we just want to get on with the story and reach its climax!
Finally, you can definitely learn that Hayes is a screen-writer, this book is nothing less than built as the next best blockbuster – it won’t be hard for Hayes to tweak it for the big screens.
Having said all this, it is a fantastic read, and a great first novel by any standards. Especially for action and spy tales lovers.
on 15 July 2014
I am not usually into blockbuster thrillers but I bought this book on the basis of the great reviews it had and also because it was long, and I had some bus journeys ahead of me.
I wasn't disappointed at all. The story is absolutely gripping, I didn't feel like putting the book down at any time; on the contrary, I was compelled to keep reading. I found it a little hard to get into it in the beginning as the opening scene is extremely graphic, and I was a tad worried it might continue that way. However, the book soon moves into classic action territory, with the hero, who I was very sympathetic too, travelling to Turkey and other countries in pursuit of a terrorist. I found the plot believable, and I could understand the motivations of the different protagonists. Also, I wasn't able to predict some of the plot twists, nor did I think Hayes went for a Hollywood ending. Hayes shows a lot of skill in this novel; he follows the classic structure of the genre, but succeeds nonetheless in elevating his book above the rest.
on 2 July 2016
I Am Pilgrim is both an entertaining and ridiculous read. I did a fair amount of eye rolling when I read it. Some of the dialogue between characters is so cheesy, I found myself cringing. It is also littered with cliches - world's greatest intelligence agent, recruited to save the day who also just happens to be incredibly handsome...sound familiar? Personally I did not find our super sleuth particularly super. A healthy dose of good fortune and pure co-incidence helped him throughout.
Having said all that, it was great fun! If you're looking an easy holiday read, then this is your book. But if you're looking a serious thriller that doesn't embrace stereotypes and cliches...avoid!
on 12 November 2014
So awfully low-brow it makes Dan Brown look like Tolstoy. This is the first time I've felt so strongly that I've wanted to take time to write a book review. It's low-brow, lowest-common-denominator thriller-by-numbers full of cliches, stereotypes, and convenient coincidences. But while I don't mind the odd low-brow page-turner, I really object to the outright errors that stretch credulity so far as to insult the reader. Three stand-out examples:
1. The plot hinges on a historical landmark that is only exposed at low-tide in the Mediterranean. Where the difference between low tide and high tide is about 5 cm.
2. The main character makes a call on a mobile phone from an aeroplane midway across the Mediterranean. Maybe there are cellphone towers that are only exposed at low tide. Or something.
3. By stripping the silver nitrate coating from the back of a mirror and then "developing" it in photographic chemicals, an image was created of the scene that was in front of the mirror at the moment a bright firework had gone off. No lenses were required to focus the image on to the plane of this magic mirror. I know it's a magic mirror because somehow it was not completely overexposed from the light of decades falling on it, but was then able to capture the light from a firework.
All in all it comes across as though it's written by a teenager who still has a lot to learn about the world they live in and has little awareness of that fact.
on 19 July 2013
I started this book on holiday having read several other crime/espionage books in the course of the trip. This stood out head and shoulders above the rest and is with reflection the best book of the genre I have read for some years.
The narrative style is compelling and although the story builds through a complex plot you are pulled through it by short chapters, well selected hooks and a momentum to the plot that leaves you not wanting to switch the light out.
I can't recommend this book enough and although only just published I now want his next work!!