I Am Pilgrim

Posted: March 4, 2015 in Book reviews, Regarding writing

I Am Pilgrim

By Terry Hayes.

In a seedy New York motel room a body has been discovered, all traces of identity removed with forensic precision. On hand is NYPD detective Ben Bradley, and his friend, a shadowy figure who will go by many alias throughout the book but will mainly come to be known by the codename ‘Pilgrim’.

Pilgrim is a former intelligence officer who’s written the definitive book of forensics, a book that the killer seems to have referred to. Before long however Pilgrim has bigger fish to fry than the murder of a single woman, as he’s recruited by the President to track down a terrorist named Saracen, a man who’s planning an apocalyptic biological attack on the US.

Despatched to Turkey Pilgrim finds both cases converging, but can he solve the ultimate murder, can he stop the ultimate terrorist, and will he survive the violent finale?

As a writer there are some books that depress me, books that are so well written, so well-paced, so perfect, that I know, in my heart of hearts, that I could never write anything as good.

And then there are books like this. How this book gathered so many five star reviews I’ll never know given it’s flawed on so many levels.

Where to start? Well how about with the ‘will he survive part’. No spoilers here but he does, but then I knew that from the start because the book is written in the frickin first person! First person narrative can and does work in a lot of novels, but what it can do, and does demonstrably here, is suck the drama out of a story. Hayes compounds this by shifting perspective after a few chapters to show us things from the Saracen’s point of view. Initially he does this using the narrator’s voice, with Pilgrim referring to reports and other information he’s read and filling in the blanks to imagine what happened, but Hayes quickly dispenses with this conceit as too cumbersome and basically just writes all the Saracen bits in third person from then on.

One thing you’ll notice about this book from the beginning is its length; seriously it’s like a brick and comes in just a shade under 900 pages. Hayes even adds to this with a commentary at the end about how he knows it’s long but this was necessary for us to understand who Pilgrim is etc. etc. yadda…yadda…that he feels the need to justify the length suggests that, on some level, he realises it’s a problem. The length isn’t necessary, it’s taken up with a lot of extraneous details about both Pilgrim and other characters, supposedly this is to give them depth, except it never works.

Pilgrim is the worst kind of literary character, the faceless, perfect agent; an orphan adopted by a billionaire, he’s a Harvard trained Doctor turned secret agent who rises to become head of a super-secret organisation before he’s 30 (acquiring the utterly ludicrous moniker of’ Rider of the Blue’ in the process) then retires soon afterwards to live a peaceful life in Paris. He’s an expert on art, sailing, and bass playing, and was previously a recreational drug user, although this plays no part in the narrative, and isn’t even brought up late on when he has to be dosed up with a lot of drugs.

His story is told in flashback, sometimes flashbacks within flashbacks, what this means is that, after a promising start, the novel veers all over the place (both geographically and temporally).

I’m sure Hayes is trying to give his character life, but he fails utterly, Pilgrim never rises beyond being a thinly veiled avatar, nothing but a collection of anecdotes. That he’s then portrayed as the greatest spy/detective in the world just adds insult to injury, he’s the kind of character bad fanfic writers would invent, probably the kind of character I’d have invented when I was seventeen. We never even get much to show us that he’s this uber agent, aside from a ludicrous scene involving a mirror which has to be read to be believed.

What progress he makes through the book is down to luck and contrivances, and boy do the contrivances start to mount up, with a completely unconnected series of murders, and the world’s most lethal terrorist, both ending up in the same small Turkish town, a place that, amazingly, Pilgrim knows intimately, what are the odds? Throw in a single terrorist who can apparently synthesise a lethal bacillus in a garage and you have a plot that holds about as much water as a sieve.

As well I need to talk the politics of this book. Now I consider myself fairly middle of the road, which doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy writers who might be more to the left or right of me, but Hayes employs the worst kind of stereotypes, the kind of thing I’d accept from Ian Fleming as a man of his time but which stand out like a sore thumb now. So all Muslims are evil, all Turks are corrupt, all Swiss bankers crooks, all Italians lazy… Lesbians, they get a bad rap, Americans? Well Americans are great, where would we be without them? Europe is awash with Muslim extremists as well apparently. It’s curious, looking at the blurb it seems Hayes lives in Switzerland which surprises me, you’d think he’d want to be somewhere safer, somewhere more American.

I’m not saying you can’t suggest a lot of Muslims are bad, Turkish people corrupt etc. but for god’s sake use some light and shade.
As a final negative I’d like to highlight that Terry Hayes now has the dubious honour of being the worst example of “Things other writers do that annoy me, #2” namely foreshadowing. Please believe me when I say it isn’t hyperbole to suggest that a minimum of every other chapter will feature a comment along the lines of “if only I’d realised the mistake I’d made in trusting X” or something similar. As with the first person narrative it dilutes the drama.

Amazingly, despite all the flaws it isn’t completely terrible. Despite the length it mostly rattles along at a decent pace, helped in part by the neat trick of short chapters, and I was never tempted to completely give up on it, even if Hayes did have me throwing my hands up in the air at regular intervals.

I’m just amazed that someone didn’t edit the hell out of this before it was published and that so many people have claimed it’s the greatest thriller ever, I’m slightly amazed that someone bought the rights when it was still only two thirds written, but I guess whilst Hayes is a debut novelist, pointing out you wrote, amongst other things, the script to Mad Max 2 and Dead Calm has to lend your work a certain cachet.

I Am Pilgrim? I Am Bobbins more like…

  1. You know, this review actually tempts me. I love a bit of trash…

    • starkers70 says:

      The trouble is trash shouldn’t outstay its welcome, and shouldn’t have pretensions of thinking it’s better than it is, and on both counts this somewhat fails!

  2. storhertugen says:

    ” probably the kind of character I’d have invented when I was seventeen.”

    Exactly my thougt

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