Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.
This review was published by Shelf Awareness on May 27, 2014.
A woman is found dead in a ratty New York City hotel. Despite the outward hallmarks of a “simple” murder–one motivated by rage, sex or money–it quickly becomes clear that this is an intelligent and carefully planned crime. The room is awash in sulfuric acid, and the victim has been stripped of her face, fingerprints and teeth. A powerful antiseptic has been used to destroy all DNA on the scene. Detectives link the crime to a borrowed library book about investigations, written by one of the world’s best professional investigators, a man who doesn’t officially exist. The author of that book happens to be present at the crime scene: he is the unnamed narrator of I Am Pilgrim, an intricately plotted thriller of global proportions, and the debut novel by screenwriter Terry Hayes.
Hayes has made an inspired choice in selecting an unnamed narrator to tell this story–information can be meted out methodically, with all the oblique references and foreshadowing one might expect from a secret agent. We learn from the man who eventually consents to the code name “Pilgrim” that he has a complicated past in many cities and countries around the world, including the small Turkish town of Bodrum, which is improbably linked to the murdered woman in New York City. When detectives learn that the hotel room in question had been occupied since the morning of September 11, 2001, more questions are raised–who checks in to a NYC hotel on that morning?–and international implications begin to be theorized. Pilgrim planned to be on hand at the scene only as a consultant, to assist his friend, NYPD homicide detective Ben Bradley. But perhaps he belongs there after all.
As it turns outs, the nameless murder victim in New York City is the least of Pilgrim’s concerns.
On the other side of the world, years ago, a young boy watched his father’s beheading at the hands of the Saudi Arabian government. That boy has grown up to become a mujahid and go to war in Afghanistan against the Soviets, and has now taken on a false Lebanese identity while hatching a grand plan to take down the “far enemy,” the Western world as embodied by the United States. This unnamed man is nicknamed “the Saracen,” as our narrator is called Pilgrim, and the central plot of I Am Pilgrim is the buildup to their final standoff.
A retired chief of the most secret intelligence agency in the United States, Pilgrim is called in by the President himself after three bodies with various nationalities are found, scorched and disintegrating, in a grave of quicklime in a deserted village in the Afghani desert. The Saracen has been hard at work for decades. No crude airplane hijackings for him: the destruction of the Western world will require brilliance, finesse and absolutely thorough preparation. With his test run in the desert complete, he’s ready for the biggest scheme of all. And as good at his job as Pilgrim is, the Saracen is his match.
The coincidence of Pilgrim’s presence in the N.Y.C. hotel room will ease his transition back to full-time work on a seemingly unrelated assignment, and he reenters the underground world easily enough. Disguised as just another FBI agent, he’s sent to Turkey, ostensibly to investigate the suspicious death of a young American billionaire there. In reality, he’s hunting the Saracen. One of the many successes of I Am Pilgrim is that within 600-plus pages of mysteries within mysteries, a plethora of subplots all link together smoothly. In seeking the Saracen, Pilgrim hopes for no less than to save the world, but he is also concerned with his cover mysteries, including the death of the American billionaire in Turkey–despite local investigators having ruled it accidental, and having tried to close the case–and the murder of the still-anonymous woman in the shabby hotel in New York.
Within this elaborately plotted thriller of international espionage, Hayes inserts a charmingly detailed past and personal story for Pilgrim and his supporting characters, including Detective Ben Bradley and the U.S. director of national intelligence, who is nicknamed the Whisperer. (Hayes has a fondness for aliases.) Pilgrim’s childhood, Bradley’s heroism and modesty, and the Whisperer’s rise through the ranks of secret government agencies are realistic and enthralling. I Am Pilgrim not only circumnavigates the globe but also reveals an appreciation for and study of fine art, and references world history in building its background. In these ways, whimsy and realism are advanced in parallel by the rich context, strong characters and framing elements Hayes employs.
This debut novel is lengthy, but uses every line to full effect; the page count is necessary to pursue the involved and involving story Hayes has planned. Fully wrought characters and an ambitious, but impeccably designed plot are unfurled at a breakneck pace; the reader’s only problem will be finding time to race through I Am Pilgrim in as few sittings as possible.
Come back for my interview with Hayes later this week!