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27 August 2013

Terry Hayes: I am Pilgrim

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Move over Jackal, here comes Pilgrim?
This is definitely the best covert ops/terrorism/murder book I have read this year. Whether it gets into my top 10 best thrillers depends on how long it remains in my memory. There is a lot to remember in a complex 700 page book that left me with so many impressions - intelligent and clever, superbly and deeply plotted, brilliant characterisation, ambitious, enthralling, page-turning, action-packed and mostly unpredictable.

Pilgrim is the codename chosen by a man who doesn't want to exist. An adopted son of a wealthy family he has always been a loner and after college becomes part of an unknown covert US government group. After becoming the star operator in the group in an operation in Russia he goes into anonymous retirement and writes an obscure book under a pseudonym about the forensic background to the perfect crime. Can anyone commit the perfect crime using this information?

On the other side of the world in Saudi Arabia another youth grows up in a world where his father is beheaded for being reported to the secret police for criticising the King. This leads him into a life dedicated to Islam but also a life dedicated to eliminating the US, the country who supports the Saudi regime and fights his fundamentalist Islamic ideals. This is the birth of a terrorist called Saracen, a loner with long term plans to change the world.

Hayes takes us on an epic and unpredictable journey by Pilgrim to solve a perfect crime and at the same time find Saracen before he can deliver a far greater blow to the US than a nuclear holocaust. The action moves from the US to Afghanistan, Lebanon, the Gaza Strip, and Turkey in a maze of seemingly unconnected events and builds up to a potentially cataclysmic ending.

Along the way Terry Hayes sows seeds that grow in unexpected parts of the plot. Sometimes I spotted the seeds but rarely worked out where they would grow. This cleverly designed unpredictability was to me the keystone of Haye's writing powers. At the end of the book he reflects that he had been told that writing a movie is like swimming in a bath and writing a novel is like swimming in the ocean. With his writing skills I think that Hayes would have no difficulty swimming across the (literary) Channel.

Terry Hayes has had a remarkable writing career as a journalist, and TV and movie screenwriter in Australia and the US and this novel is the start of what could be an important career as a novelist. Dame Gail Rebuck, CBE (Chair of Penguin Random House) has reportedly called it "The best debut thriller since Day of the Jackal". I am inclined to agree.

Note: This book is published in Australia, NZ and the UK but won't be released in the US until May 2014. The link is to the Australian version of the book.

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