Review: I am Pilgrim, by Terry Hayes

A young Saudi man, radicalised by the experience of seeing his father beheaded for his iconoclastic views, grows into the world’s most fearsome terrorist — known as Saracen.  Deciding to take revenge on the House of Saud, he trains as a doctor and teaches himself not only how to create smallpox in his spare room, but tweaks its genetic code to make it vaccine-resistant.  He finds a way to smuggle 10,000 vials of the deadly stuff into the USA, where it will kill most Americans and (somehow) not leave the country, leaving the Muslim world safe.  

But while testing his virus on aid workers in Afghanistan, he pauses to phone up his kid sister in Turkey to ask how his child is doing (sis is posing as the child’s mother).  The phone call leads the Americans to send in a crack agent code-named Pilgrim (whose genius is revealed early on when he explains that men, unlike women, would put beer into a fridge).  The book’s limited humour focuses on a hotel manager whose English is imperfect.  Pilgrim calls him “the professor”, telling a friend that he’s a professor of languages.  Pilgrim’s knowledge of languages is so sophisticated (as is the author’s) that he reveals that the language spoken in Lebanon is — wait for this — Lebanese.

Pilgrim’s “legend” is that he’s an American agent (yes, that’s the cover story they came up with) sent to research an unrelated murder of a wealthy American (carried out by lesbian lovers). While searching for the person who the terrorist has phoned, the American is compelled to work with a female Turkish police officer who is — brace yourself — the terrorist’s sister!  And he discovers this because in the recording of the phone call between Saracen and his kid sister, he hears an incredibly rare musical instrument being played, eventually finds the player, leading to a video recording that exposes the sister … 

Need I go on? This book wins my award for worst-written, most bigoted and homophobic thriller I’ve read in a while.  A sequel is coming out in 2021.  I know that I for one will not be buying it.