Cannonball Read 6, Book 26: I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes

14781675This book seems to be everywhere at the moment. It has been prominently displayed in bookstores since its hardback publication last year and the paperback just came out, causing a fresh wave of publicity. There are posters everywhere I turn, all of them emblazoned with pull quotes from glowing reviews about how exciting, pulse racing, daring, smart and thrilling it is. You’ll see there’s a sticker on the cover there that denotes it is “the only thriller you need to read this year”. Having now finished it, I can only scratch my head and quote Tori Amos to ask “baby, what have you been smoking?”

The back cover does, I’ll admit, hook you in. “A young woman murdered in a run-down Manhattan hotel. A father publicly beheaded in the blistering sun of Saudi Arabia. A man’s eyes stolen from his living body as he leaves a secret Syrian research laboratory. Smouldering remains on a mountainside in the Hindu Kush. A plot to commit an appalling crime against humanity. One thread binds them all, one man to take the journey. Pilgrim.” But Hayes, an ex-screenwriter making his debut as a novelist, puts his foot wrong from the very beginning. Some of the plot points he asks to swallow are served up in indigestible chunks. I could not ever believe an ex-agent from a top secret agency only ever known as The Division would write a book detailing forensic criminal investigation and how you would commit a perfect murder, let alone that anyone would ever allow it to be published, for starters. But that book was used to plan the hotel murder which opens the book, and it’s the reason our Pilgrim narrator is there and that the whole book kicks off at all. So, whatever.

Another issue I had with the book is how much Hayes loves a back story. After a couple of chapters in the hotel dealing with the murder, he then delves into the backstory of Pilgrim, his NYPD buddy who also read the book and consults him from time to time and into the history of the man plotting to commit the appalling crime, only known as Saracen. We don’t return to the story and start to gather any kind of momentum for 150 pages. And those 150 pages could easily have been 30. And even better, there’s five “missing years” in Saracen’s backstory, one that otherwise has a forensic level of mind-numbing detail. Those years are missing purely because if they weren’t, something that takes Pilgrim A REALLY LONG TIME to figure out would have been immediately obvious.

Once Saracen’s plot becomes known to Pilgrim (spoiler alert: it’s smallpox. Saracen managed to steal the vaccine, using someone else’s eyes, and then synthesise the virus in his garage, having taught himself how from the internet. I shit you not.) the race to find Saracen takes him to Turkey, where we have a shitload more backstory. Parachuted in under the cover story of investigating the death of an American billionaire, Pilgrim actually has to investigate that and the Saracen plot as well, to maintain cover. While delving into the death, desperation forces his hand and there’s a plot point involving fireworks and giant mirrors that even Dan Brown would have raised an eyebrow at and said “bitch, please”. It also doesn’t stack up with someone who repeatedly says “had I been paying more attention at the time, I would have noticed…” or something along those lines. I got to the point where every time he said it, it caused an eye roll and an exclamation of “you’re supposed to be the best secret agent alive!”

Repetition is another of Hayes’s problems. When endlessly discussing the smallpox scenario, I lost count of how many times I read the words “crash through the vaccine”. The writing generally isn’t anywhere near as good as it thinks it is. There are flashbacks which last over several chapters and are purely there to introduce one character and one tiny plot point. And those flashbacks are clumsily constructed, to say the least. Hayes also talks down to his audience, pausing to explain what a tagine is, which just made me yell “I KNOW WHAT A FUCKING TAGINE IS”. Having patronised us, he then talks about craigslist as if it’s actually a list belonging to a guy named Craig and worst of all, doesn’t know what a zombie is. When detailing how Saracen will unleash the smallpox he notes that after exposure, the exposed can then “accurately be described as zombies – one of the walking dead.” Anyone who’s ever seen a zombie film will be happy to tell you that zombies are actually undead and unless the smallpox has killed you and then you’ve come back to life with a desire to eat brains, you’re not a zombie.

So there we are. A fast paced thriller that is neither fast paced nor especially thrilling. Ambitiously constructed, sure, but Hayes’s reach far exceeds his grasp and what could have been an absolute slam dunk is instead by turns frustrating, dull and laughable.

 

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