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‘I Am Pilgrim’ Delivers 21st Century Espionage With A Cold War Feel

'I Am Pilgrim' is Terry Hayes' first novel. Hayes will be at Warwick's La Jolla on June 8.
'I Am Pilgrim' is Terry Hayes' first novel. Hayes will be at Warwick's La Jolla on June 8.

Meet the Author

Author Terry Hayes will be at Warwick's La Jolla on Sunday, June 8 at 7 p.m. to discuss and sign 'I Am Pilgrim"

Location: 7812 Girard Ave

I remember reading a Sunday comic strip from the early 1990s, I believe it was Berkeley Breathed’s “Outland,” where Opus and his friends were playing spies going after the bad guys. Every time they named the Soviets or “commies” as enemies, a man in a suit kept telling them those were hardly enemies anymore. They turned to him and asked him who he was, to which he replied, “the media.” Suddenly all guns were pointed in his direction. The Cold War was at an end. I was not even in high school yet, but I was steeped in Ian Fleming’s James Bond and — to my father’s admonishment — “The Executioner” series with Mack Bolan. The idea that spies could now be without a major foreign enemy really struck me at the time. I remember the comic so clearly because it was the first time I consciously became aware of a world with constantly evolving geopolitics.

That same fascination came to mind several times while reading Terry Hayes’s debut novel “I Am Pilgrim.” Running parallel to the central conflict are a number of flashbacks to the protagonist’s past exploits in a variety of countries and time periods, and how much those experiences have changed as the world has shifted pre- and post-9/11. This look at global change over time from the perspective of a globe-trotting spy is one of major strengths of Hayes’s book, but it is far from the only one.

Hayes, a veteran screenwriter who penned, among others, “Mad Max 2,” “Dead Calm” and “From Hell,” clearly understands the two most essential elements of a great spy thriller: a hero we can root for and a villain we are fascinated by. The hero in question — codenamed Pilgrim — was an agent for an ultra-secret division of U.S. intelligence called, of course, The Division before it was dissolved. After attempting to enter civilian life for the first time since college, Pilgrim finds himself involuntarily thrust back into what he calls the “secret world” after an apocalypse-level plot against the U.S. is discovered.

The mastermind behind the plot is called the Saracen — a brilliant Muslim doctor whose Islamic radicalism is thrown into overdrive following a traumatic childhood event. His plot is no less than the eradication of Western civilization and he has spent most of his life in its planning and execution. Both Pilgrim and Saracen are characters of intense charisma and intelligence. Both have thoroughly conceived motivations that give them real dimension in a world that feels just as real. They are surrounded by an interesting set of supporting characters, as well, notably NYPD Detective Ben Bradley, young hacker Battleboi, and a certain Turkish hotel manager.

In terms of storytelling, Hayes wears some influences on his sleeve. The opening scene with its crime scene in a seedy New York motel and first-person narration hearkens back to Raymond Chandler crime novels. Some of Pilgrim’s more innovative investigation techniques bring to mind Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, or even Sherlock Holmes. Chapters rarely exceed two or three pages, allowing the story to move along at near breakneck pace. What is most interesting though is how Hayes takes seemingly disparate storylines like the aforementioned seedy motel murder, a murder in another country, consequences from past events and the central plot, and gradually threads them together into a satisfying conclusion.

Despite being firmly entrenched in the real world with our real history, there is a lot of imaginative fiction at play too. The intelligence branch called The Division with its code-named operatives, the non-existent area code for higher level agent phone numbers, the big brother network called Echelon that would make opponents of wiretapping quake with rage, all lend some fun spy panache to the story. The novel isn’t perfect (the killer is a woman so she has romantic comedy DVDs? Really?), but it delivers for espionage fans, while more casual readers will find it elevated with a clear understanding of history and, more importantly, the consequences of actions. “I Am Pilgrim” doesn’t revolutionize the spy genre necessarily, but it does a phenomenal job of keeping the feeling of the classic Cold War spy story while maintaining a 21st century vantage point.

If this is what Terry Hayes can do with his first novel, I can’t wait to see what he does next.

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