Atria, 624 pages, $26.99
I Am Pilgrim is the sort of book I wasn’t sure of for the first few chapters. The plot layering was so thick, I didn’t think the author ever would come up for air. Within a few chapters, the story had changed from a gruesome and brilliant murder of a young woman in a dingy walk-up in New York to a kid in Saudi Arabia rushing to his father’s very public execution. I didn’t know whether I’d like it a lot or be annoyed at the writerly shenanigans. If you read this book — and you should — this is where I tell you to keep the faith. The big-city American crime is just the current focus of an intriguing character whose background is international, covert, and deadly. In the end, I came to admire tremendously Terry Hayes’s ability to weave in and out of past events.
There are three interwoven and interlinked stories. The first is the murder of that young woman in New York. The-man-with-many-names — let’s call him Scott for the sake of convenience — is helping his friend Ben, a homicide detective, solve the case. That case has a connection to Turkey, as does a prior event in Scott’s mysterious past life.
The second story is of Scott’s past life as a covert agent of an ultra-secret organization and his current (that is, contemporaneous to the most recent storyline) re-call to arms. Although he “retired” from that covert life, he has been reactivated because of a worldwide terrorist threat. The terrorist threat consists of one man from Saudia Arabia. That man was the boy who witnessed his father’s execution and has been motivated to seek revenge in a devastating way. How can Scott find a man who is brilliant and has covered his tracks almost flawlessly. “Almost” is the key word. There is a slim chance derived from a tiny piece of information that may not even be related to the terrorist. That information drives Scott to Turkey.
Finally, in Turkey, a billionaire has fallen off a cliff and died. It is Scott’s cover story that he is an FBI agent sent to investigate that there was no monkey business involved. Lo and behold, as he actually investigates the crime, there is some monkey business.
Small wonder that this plot-driven book is 624 pages long.
Hayes employs the trick of having Scott exclaim at many points that he had missed something which would come back to bite him later. In this first-person book we get the strong feeling of Scott’s future presence, that he survived his travails and is narrating this book from a distant perspective. When he writes his will — one of the best scenes in the book — we know he does so unnecessarily. Does this diminish the pathos? A little. But at the same time, there’s no assurance that future Scott is whole and healthy. The first-person narrative is my favorite but is, no doubt, tricky. To confuse the issue, in the ARC I read, Hayes also switches tenses which made me lose the timeline.
This is a good summer read.