June 15, 2014

Debut spy-thriller turns out to be a big, exhilarating read

“I Am Pilgrim” by Terry Hayes (Emily Bestler Books/Atria, 612 pages, $26.99)

“I Am Pilgrim” by Terry Hayes (Emily Bestler Books/Atria, 612 pages, $26.99)

The first sentence of Terry Hayes’ exhilarating debut thriller, “I Am Pilgrim,” travels from Red Square to the “wrong side” of Detroit’s Eight Mile Road, and somehow you know immediately – buckle up. This complex, globalized tear through our complex, globalized world shoots from New York to the Black Hills of South Dakota, touches down in London and Geneva, and lands on tiny Santorini, “the most beautiful of all the Greek islands,” for a gripping assassination at a world-class restaurant and bar. And that’s just the first 50 pages.

It all starts in a seedy Manhattan hotel called the Eastside Inn, where a woman has been discovered with “her throat cut, floating facedown in a bathtub full of sulfuric acid.” Along with her face, the acid has dissolved her fingerprints, and any hope of identification vanishes when the police spot a battlefield dental kit containing a pair of recently used extraction forceps. She is, quite literally, a toothless wonder.

Meanwhile, in the remote Hindu Kush mountains of Afghanistan, a lone extremist called the Saracen has narrowly escaped Australian troops in a deserted village. An indomitable Saudi national who was radicalized in his youth after his father’s unjust beheading, the Saracen has left behind the charred remains of three kidnapped aid workers in a fresh, shallow grave. Among the ashes, the troops find a terrifying clue – a saddle blanket shred that later tests positive for a genetically enhanced, weaponized version of one of the most deadly infectious diseases the world has ever known.

Readers often are tempted to skim a big thriller like “I Am Pilgrim,” but there’s very little here you’ll want to miss. Hayes, an award-winning screenwriter (“Road Warrior,” “Dead Calm”), masterfully guides readers through an incredibly elaborate, drum-tight plot. Is it plausible? It certainly feels that way while you’re in the thick of it. Is it realistic? Let’s give the final word on that to spy-thriller king John le Carre, who once said that “every fiction writer would rather be credible than authentic.”

It’s hard to know if this author would draw a distinction between those two ideas. But this much is clear – “I Am Pilgrim” is an authentic hit that’s likely to earn Hayes some serious credibility.

John Wilwol, Newsday

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