I came upon this book via one of the girls from book club, when we were on a crime/thriller spree earlier this year. It was published two summers ago in 2013, and a year later, its movie rights were bought by MGM. The author, Terry Hayes, used to be a journalist (a foreign correspondent in the US for the Sydney Morning Herald who covered the Nixon/Watergate scandal) but his writing skills have been more recently used for screenwriting (although by recent, I meant late 90s to early 2000). His latest venture has been the book I Am Pilgrim, and I reckon he’s probably also involved in the screenwriting process for the movie.
The book’s opening scene starts with quite a big splash — a crime scene in central New York, a ‘remarkable murder’ as described by the main protagonist in first person POV. From there everything just runs, trickles of information coming out about the mystery, about our main man and his past adventures, about another man miles away in the Middle East and his own journey, and how they come together as opposing sides in the fight of “good vs evil”.
The principal character is a man adept at putting on different personas, a spy thoroughly skilled for someone his age. The details as to why comes in bits and pieces, as he goes through the story in “one last mission” as requested by his ‘company’. On the other side, the main antagonist is a man on a mission of retribution, patient and methodical, that it does not bother him that it takes years to exact his revenge. The author is quite adept at pacing both stories, releasing the particulars bit by bit, that a reader (or at least this reader) cannot help but run through each page to get on the next to see what happens or what new information will be revealed.
I honestly enjoyed reading this book. I don’t know if the author’s experience as a screenwriter contributed to it (or that he definitely hoped it will be picked up and made into a movie — which it did), but reading it was very much like watching a blockbuster movie, where you jump from one scene to the next, wanting to know what happens but not exactly thinking too much about whether it all ties together cohesively. I was just running through page after page, trying to finish it as quick as I can because it was so exciting, and also so I can return to my life (husband was feeling neglected! Haha).
I did have a few thoughts in my head, especially the way the antagonist was written. It did not portray conservative (or is it fundamentalist?) Islam that well, and I’m not sure if it was accurate — I was hoping that Mr. Hayes’ skills as an investigative reporter was put to use for that. The fascinating opening mystery turned out to be a side plot, which afterwards made me think whether it was merely used to grab a reader’s attention because it bore no importance to the overall plot. Minus that gripping start, it probably could’ve been taken out with no loss to the plot. The only thing I can think of is that the circumstances involving it lent the glamour bit in the spying, where the public has been used to James Bond and his trips to interesting locales and visits to yachts and living with the rich and luxurious.
I’ve read a few negative reviews on this book, and some of them do make a point. However, if you treat it like a summer blockbuster film — just keep reading, keep reading and enjoy the moment, don’t pause and think — then it will be an enjoyable read. It’s not a book that you come out from and internalise or take to heart. Treat it as simple entertainment, then maybe you won’t be too disappointed.
“Nobody’s ever been arrested for a murder; they have only ever been arrested for not planning it properly.”
– Terry Hayes (I Am Pilgrim)
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What are your favourite spy novels?