So. Get this. There’s this guy, right? He’s a super-secret, super-smart, super-duper spy person. He’s, like, the youngest of his kind EVER. His parents were viciously killed when he was young, but that’s okay because he was adopted by this really rich couple who loved him and turned him into a super-spy. And now? He’s an all-American hero, strong of jaw and willpower, on the hunt for a super evil radical islamist terrorist who is planning to unleash smallpox into the world. The only question is… WILL OUR HERO STOP HIM IN TIME as they face off in the THEATRE OF DEATH????
This, dear Cannonballers, is, unfortunately, the plot synopsis to I Am Pilgrim. On paper, it’s a terrible book: Batman meets Tom Clancy rip-off. I probably wouldn’t have picked it up if not for the fact that it came highly recommend by a colleague whose opinions on such matters I defer to; and a quick Google trawl led me to rave reviews in the Guardian and the NYTimes, never the easiest customers to please. I still had my doubts when I finally got around to reading it, but I’m so glad I did.
Scott – codename Pilgrim – is a retired spy. He’s not a sociopath like James Bond, nor does he possess superhero qualities; he’s intelligent, but not the way Sherlock Holmes is. He’s tough, but not infinitely so. At the beginning of the novel, when we meet him, he is helping a friend solve a murder case. A young woman has been murdered in a dodgy hotel room not far from Ground Zero. Her face, fingertips and teeth have been removed, leaving her unidentifiable. Simultaneously, on the other side of the world, we meet a man known to us only as The Saracen who, as a young boy in Saudi Arabia, witnesses his father’s execution, turns to Islamic fundamentalism and plans a big smallpox revival.
The story is told in parallel form and we watch both the Saracen and Pilgrim grow into similar people: intelligent, driven, but also cynical and retiring. Predictably, one wants to save the world where the other wants to end it; one is a hateful bastard and the other still has a bit of hope left.
It’s not a perfect novel, but it has many redeeming values. For all the larger-than-life superspies out there, Pilgrim actually seems human. He blends in. He’s smart not because he speaks twenty languages and has Sherlock-like eye for detail, but because he slowly and meticulously puts pieces of a puzzle together and because he has an unfailing sense of pragmatism (pro-tip: when breaking into someone’s home, don’t use a flashlight as this will attract attention; instead, close the curtains and then switch on the light. The neighbours will think nothing of it). He’s weary but caring and he has a good eye for what drives people, whether it’s a Turkish hotel manager, a New York police detective or the President of the USA. When faced with torture, he’s scared and wonders how long he’ll last.
The plot, too, while it has its unbelievable moments, never veers into the realm of Roger Moore-era Bond movies. There are side-branches that never go anywhere. Sometimes, Pilgrim gets lucky; sometimes, his luck fails him and he gets in trouble. The Saracen is a bit more supervillain territory, but that’s what the book requires to keep the tension going, so I had no qualms about that. The plot is relentless and rapid and never gets boring, even though this is a pretty enormous book (600 pages in hardback; over 900 in paperback). The writing is barebones, but then again this isn’t what you pick up to elevate your spirit to Nabokovian heights. This is pure fun. At a certain point I didn’t even mind the endless foreshadowing (“little did I know that… Unfortunately, my troubles were just beginning…”).
It’s not a flawless novel. I’m no biochemist but the idea of synthetically creating a virus in your basement seems a bit ludicrous to me. Not all the characters work equally well. Some of the loose ends in the plot are downright unsatisfying, and some strands are laughably implausible (including a trick with fireworks and some mirrors). The conclusion, while I liked it, isn’t going to please everyone; without wanting to give too much away, the mundanity of the denouement clashes with the grandeur of the attempt. I didn’t mind – most grand schemes are brought down by practical variables – but it might not satisfy everyone.
The New York Times describes this as a desert island book. I could not agree more. This is a book to get lost in for hours on a sandy beach, or in a snowed in cabin. It has brought both fun and invention to a genre sorely needing it, by being realistic and pragmatic and that, alone, is worth its asking price.