Sunday, March 27, 2016

Review of "I Am Pilgrim" by Terry Hayes

In the aftermath of the Twin Towers disaster on 9/11 a woman is murdered in a cheap hotel in lower Manhattan. The victim's face and fingerprints have been destroyed by acid, her teeth have been removed, and the room has been uber-cleaned with industrial strength chemicals. It's clear the killer took lessons from a scholarly book about forensics penned by 'Jude Garrett' - the assumed name of a retired, thirty-something, secret agent for a super-secret branch of the CIA. Because he's a forensics expert, the police ask 'Jude Garrett' to consult on the case. The few clues retrieved from the crime scene include a calendar featuring ancient ruins and a partial phone number.

We come to learn that 'Jude Garrett' - code name Pilgrim - grew up as the adopted son of a wealthy couple. He had a privileged life, went to the best schools, and was recruited by the CIA after graduating from Harvard. Pilgrim - who's intelligent, clever, intuitive, tough, and brave - may just be the best agent in the world. And he'll need to be when he goes up against an Arab zealot dubbed Saracen, a very cunning terrorist.

As the book shifts back and forth between Saracen's story and Pilgrim's story we find out that Saracen grew up in an educated, devout Muslim family in Saudi Arabia. Saracen's radicalization began when he was 14, after his father was publicly beheaded for criticizing the Saudi royal family. By the age of 18 Saracen was a highly skilled Muj (Mujaheddin) in Afghanistan, during the country's war with Russia. Afterwards Saracen devised a diabolical plot to get revenge against Saudi Arabia and the U.S. which (in his eyes) supports the evil regime there. Saracen's long-term plan involved going to medical school, becoming a respected doctor, and developing an enormously destructive biological weapon - a disease that has a fatality rate of 100 percent.

Most readers will be riveted and impressed (though horrified) as Saracen goes about executing his smart, cruel, diabolical plan. As a 'clean skin' (complete unknown) Saracen is not on the radar of any western countries. The Arab zealot has a bit of bad luck, however, and his potential weapon comes to the attention of the CIA, which immediately recruits Pilgrim out of retirement to stop the apocalypse.

Pilgrim soon learns that Saracen has a contact in Bogrum, Turkey. Serendipitously, a young American billionaire has just been killed in Bogrum. So Pilgrim, in the guise of an FBI agent looking into the billionaire's death, arrives in Bogrum to pursue Saracen. Pilgrim has several stateside contacts ready to assist: Ben Bradley - an extremely capable NYPD police officer who was badly hurt on 9/11; 'The Whisperer' - the Head of U.S. Intelligence; and Battleboi - a convicted (but genial) super-hacker.

As Saracen's plan, which has taken a couple of decades to complete, comes to fruition he prepares to launch his attack on America. Once America is in chaos (he thinks) it will no longer be able to support Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile Pilgrim, who's also investigating the billionaire's death to maintain his cover, is on Saracen's trail. AND EUREKA, the billionaire's death has a connection with the woman murdered in the cheap Manhattan hotel at the beginning of the story. (Talk about good luck! Or good plotting!)

Saracen's biological weapon is perfected and sent on its way to America while Pilgrim races around Eastern Europe and the Middle East, collecting clues about the Arab's real identity and history. Pilgrim is desperate to find out where, when, and how the weapon will be launched. All this leads to a dramatic, heart-pounding climax in an ancient ruin near the Turkish coast.

The book is a compelling page-turner with an interesting array of characters including a female Turkish homicide detective, Eastern European thugs, Mujaheddin believers, decadent Americans vacationing in Turkey, a handsome, well-built masseur in a tiny thong swimsuit (LOL), American socialites, government moles, an endearing little boy, and more. I especially like the scenes where Pilgrim talks about his beloved adoptive father Bill, a good and kind man who enjoyed sailing and collecting the work of unknown artists.

By the end of the book all the elements of the plot come together in a satisfactory manner, though some loose ends point to a possible sequel.

One small quibble I have with the story is the constant foreshadowing. Pilgrim's narration includes a lot of: "I should have paid better attention.....", "I should have listened more carefully......", "If only I'd known.....", "That was a mistake....", and so on. A little of this goes a long way.

Another thing that bothers me goes to the core of Saracen's deadly plan. He seems to think his biological weapon will destroy his enemies and that will be more or less the end of it. In reality, though, there would be no controlling the spread of the disease and the resulting pandemic would impact every country on Earth including Pakistan, Afghanistan, Lebanon, etc. - wherever Saracen plans to settle down after the U.S. catastrophe. In fact, the way Saracen's weapon is described, it would probably wipe out 99% of the world's population. (This is a work of fiction though, so I guess it gets a pass.)

Overall, this is a very enjoyable, well-written book, highly recommended.

Rating: 4.5 stars

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