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I Am Pilgrim
Table of Contents
About The Book
“I Am Pilgrim is simply one of the best suspense novels I’ve read in a long time.” —David Baldacci, #1 New York Times bestselling author
“A big, breathless tale of nonstop suspense.” —Janet Maslin, The New York Times
“The pages fly by ferociously fast. Simply unputdownable.” —Booklist
A breakneck race against time…and an implacable enemy.
An anonymous young woman murdered in a run-down hotel, all identifying characteristics dissolved by acid.
A father publicly beheaded in the blistering heat of a Saudi Arabian public square.
A notorious Syrian biotech expert found eyeless in a Damascus junkyard.
Smoldering human remains on a remote mountainside in Afghanistan.
A flawless plot to commit an appalling crime against humanity.
One path links them all, and only one man can make the journey.
There are places I’ll remember all my life—Red Square with a hot wind howling across it, my mother’s bedroom on the wrong side of Eight Mile, the endless gardens of a fancy foster home, a man waiting to kill me in a group of ruins known as the Theater of Death.
But nothing is burned deeper in my memory than a walk-up in New York—threadbare curtains, cheap furniture, a table loaded with tina and other party drugs. Lying next to the bed are a handbag, black panties the size of dental floss, and a pair of six-inch Jimmy Choos. Like their owner, they don’t belong here. She is naked in the bathroom—her throat cut, floating facedown in a bathtub full of sulfuric acid, the active ingredient in a drain cleaner available at any supermarket.
Dozens of empty bottles of the cleaner—Drain Bomb, it’s called—lie scattered on the floor. Unnoticed, I start picking through them. They’ve all got their price tags still attached and I see that, in order to avoid suspicion, whoever killed her bought them at twenty different stores. I’ve always said it’s hard not to admire good planning.
The place is in chaos, the noise deafening—police radios blaring, coroner’s assistants yelling for support, a Hispanic woman sobbing. Even if a victim doesn’t know anyone in the world, it seems like there’s always someone sobbing at a scene like this.
The young woman in the bath is unrecognizable—the three days she has spent in the acid have destroyed all her features. That was the plan I guess—whoever killed her had also weighed down her hands with telephone books. The acid has dissolved not only her fingerprints but almost the entire metacarpal structure underneath. Unless the forensic guys at the NYPD get lucky with a dental match, they’ll have a helluva time putting a name to this one.
In places like this, where you get a feeling evil still clings to the walls, your mind can veer into strange territory. The idea of a young woman without a face made me think of a Lennon/McCartney groove from long ago—it’s about Eleanor Rigby, a woman who wore a face that she kept in a jar by the door. In my head I start calling the victim Eleanor. The crime-scene team still have work to do, but there isn’t a person in the place who doesn’t think Eleanor was killed during sex: the mattress half off the base, the tangled sheets, a brown spray of decaying arterial blood on a bedside table. The really sick ones figure he cut her throat while he was still inside her. The bad thing is—they may be right. However she died, those that look for blessings may find one here—she wouldn’t have realized what was happening, not until the last moment anyway.
Tina—crystal meth—would have taken care of that. It makes you so damn horny, so euphoric as it hits your brain that any sense of foreboding would have been impossible. Under its influence the only coherent thought most people can marshal is to find a partner and bang their back out.
Next to the two empty foils of tina is what looks like one of those tiny shampoo bottles you get in hotel bathrooms.
Unmarked, it contains a clear liquid—GHB, I figure. It’s getting a lot of play now in the dark corners of the web: in large doses it is replacing rohypnol as the date-rape drug of choice. Most music venues are flooded with it: clubbers slug a tiny cap to cut tina, taking the edge off of its paranoia. But GHB also comes with its own side effects—a loss of inhibitions and a more intense sexual experience. On the street one of its names is Easy Lay. Kicking off her Jimmys, stepping out of her tiny black skirt, Eleanor must have been a rocket on the Fourth of July.
As I move through the crush of people—unknown to any of them, a stranger with an expensive jacket slung over his shoulder and a lot of freight in his past—I stop at the bed. I close out the noise and in my mind I see her on top, naked, riding him cowgirl. She is in her early twenties with a good body and I figure she is right into it—the cocktail of drugs whirling her toward a shattering orgasm, her body temperature soaring, thanks to the meth, her swollen breasts pushing down, her heart and respiratory rate rocketing under the onslaught of passion and chemicals, her breath coming in gulping bursts, her wet tongue finding a mind of its own and searching hard for the mouth below. Sex today sure isn’t for sissies.
Neon signs from a row of bars outside the window would have hit the blond highlights in her three-hundred-dollar haircut and sparkled off a Panerai diver’s watch. Yeah, it’s fake but it’s a good one. I know this woman. We all do—the type anyway. You see them in the huge new Prada store in Milan, queuing outside the clubs in Soho, sipping skinny lattes in the hot cafés on the Avenue Montaigne—young women who mistake People magazine for news and a Japanese symbol on their backs as a sign of rebellion.
I imagine the killer’s hand on her breast, touching a jeweled nipple ring. The guy takes it between his fingers and yanks it, pulling her closer. She cries out, revved—everything is hypersensitive now, especially her nipples. But she doesn’t mind—if somebody wants it rough, it just means they must really like her. Perched on top of him, the headboard banging hard against the wall, she would have been looking at the front door—locked and chained for sure. In this neighborhood that’s the least you could do.
A diagram on the back shows an evacuation route—she is in a hotel but any resemblance to the Ritz-Carlton pretty much ends there. It is called the Eastside Inn—home to itinerants, backpackers, the mentally lost, and anybody else with twenty bucks a night. Stay as long as you like—a day, a month, the rest of your life—all you need is two IDs, one with a photo.
The guy who had moved into room 89 had been here for a while—a six-pack sits on a bureau, along with four half-empty bottles of hard liquor and a couple of boxes of breakfast cereal. A stereo and a few CDs are on a nightstand and I glance through them. He had good taste in music, at least you could say that. The closet, however, is empty—it seems like his clothes were about the only thing he took with him when he walked out, leaving the body to liquefy in the bath. Lying at the back of the closet is a pile of trash: discarded newspapers, an empty can of roach killer, a coffee-stained wall calendar. I pick it up—every page features a black-and-white photo of an ancient ruin—the Coliseum, a Greek temple, the Library of Celsus at night. Very arty. But the pages are blank, not an appointment on any of them—except as a coffee mat, it seems like it’s never been used and I throw it back.
I turn away and—without thinking, out of habit really—I run my hand across the nightstand. That’s strange, no dust. I do the same to the bureau, bed board, and stereo and get the identical result—the killer has wiped everything down to eliminate his prints. He gets no prizes for that, but as I catch the scent of something and raise my fingers to my nose, everything changes. The residue I can smell is from an antiseptic spray they use in intensive care wards to combat infection. Not only does it kill bacteria, but as a side effect it also destroys DNA material—sweat, skin, hair. By spraying everything in the room and then dousing the carpet and walls, the killer was making sure that the NYPD needn’t bother with their forensic vacuum cleaners.
With sudden clarity I realize that this is anything but a by-the-book homicide for money or drugs or sexual gratification. As a murder, this is something remarkable.
Reading Group Guide
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An intelligent and taut debut thriller that depicts the collision course between two geniuses, one a tortured hero and one a determined terrorist.
Pilgrim is the code name for a world-class and legendary secret agent. He’s the adopted son of a wealthy, Waspy family and was once the head of an internal affairs force for US intelligence services. He held the vaunted title Rider of the Blue, which he acquired after he was forced to assassinate his turncoat predecessor in Moscow.
His adversary is a man known only to the reader as the Saracen. As a young boy, the Saracen sees his dissident father beheaded in a Saudi Arabian public square. But the event marks him for life and creates a burning desire to destroy the special relationship between the US and the kingdom. Everything in the Saracen’s life from this moment forward will be in service to jihad.
At the novel’s opening, we find ourselves in a seedy apartment near Ground Zero. A woman lies facedown in a pool of acid, features melted off her face, teeth missing, fingerprints gone. The room has been treated with DNA-eradicating antiseptic spray. All the techniques are pulled directly from Pilgrim’s book, a cult classic of forensic science written under a pen name.
In offering the NYPD some casual assistance with the case, Pilgrim gets pulled back into the intelligence underground. What follows is a thriller that jockeys between astonishingly detailed character study and breakneck globetrotting. The author shifts effortlessly from Pilgrim’s hidden life of leisure in Paris to the Arab’s squalid warrior life in Afghanistan, from the hallways of an exclusive Swiss bank to the laboratories of a nefarious biotech facility in Syria.
The inevitable encounter between Pilgrim and the Saracen will come in Turkey, around the murder of a wealthy American, in a thrilling, twisting, beautifully orchestrated finale.
If you liked I Am Pilgrim you might also like:
Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews
Code of Conduct by Brad Thor
Leaving Berlin by Joseph Kannon
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. Discuss the structure of I Am Pilgrim. Why do you think Hayes chose to begin his story with a crime scene in a New York apartment? Were you surprised by how the opening scene fit into the plot?
2. Before Terry Hayes wrote I Am Pilgrim, he was a successful screenwriter. Were there any scenes in I Am Pilgrim that you found particularly cinematic? Which ones and why? If you were casting I Am Pilgrim, who would you choose to play the role of Pilgrim and of the Saracen?
3. What did you think of the Saracen? What do you think led to his radicalization? Explain your answer.
4. I Am Pilgrim begins with the line, “There are places I’ll remember all my life.” (page 3) Discuss the places that Pilgrim names. Why are they memorable to him? Are there any places that are particularly significant to you? What are they? Tell your book club about them.
5. S. Krishna’s Books writes that I Am Pilgrim “features . . . an expansive, ambitious storyline as it sets the standard for the post-9/11 spy thriller.” How do the events of 9/11 factor into the plot of I Am Pilgrim? Many of the characters were affected greatly by events of that day. Who are they and how were they affected?
6. In interviews, Hayes has cited Stephen King, Khaled Hosseini, David Baldacci, and Vince Flynn as writers he admires. How do you think these writers inspired Hayes while he was writing I Am Pilgrim? Do you see any similarities between I Am Pilgrim and their works? Discuss them with your book club.
7. Describe Pilgrim’s friendship with Ben Bradley. How did they become friends? In what ways, if any, are the two men alike?
8. When I Am Pilgrim was published, it was praised by the Associated Press in a review that said, “The storytelling and a truly intriguing protagonist make I Am Pilgrim a contender for best-of-the-year lists.” Did you think Pilgrim was an intriguing protagonist? Why was he such a compelling character? Is there anything you wish you knew about him? What?
9. What was your initial impression of Leyla Cumali? Did your opinion of her change? If so, how and why?
10. When asked if his writing took unexpected turns, Hayes said, “Did the book take unexpected turns? Oh boy, did it.” Were there any plot twists in I Am Pilgrim that were particularly shocking to you? Which ones and why? Were you surprised by the way I Am Pilgrim ended?
- Publisher: Atria/Emily Bestler Books (December 2, 2014)
- Length: 624 pages
- ISBN13: 9781439177730
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Raves and Reviews
“Hayes delivers muscular prose, sniper-round accurate dialogue and enough superb and original plotting to fill three volumes. He balances it all with the dexterity of the accomplished storyteller that he so obviously is. I Am Pilgrim is simply one of the best suspense novels I've read in a long time.”
– David Baldacci, #1 New York Times bestselling author
“Mr. Hayes’s globe-trotting book has more kicks, twists and winks than anything of its dusty genre has provided in a long time. You will be happily surprised to find a new thriller franchise with brains to match its brawn.”
– Janet Maslin, The New York Times
"THRILLER OF THE WEEK. Delivers thrills and spills...A full tilt mix of Homeland, The Wire and The Bourne Ultimatum."
– Mail on Sunday
"I Am Pilgrim is a 21st century thriller: a high concept plot, but with finely drawn protagonists. The plot twists and turns like a python in a sack. Thestyle is visceral, gritty and cinematic...A satisfying and ambitious book, written with skill and verve."
– Adam LeBor, The Times, UK
"I AM PILGRIM Is the Best Book of 2014"
– The Huffington Post
“The most exciting desert island read of the season…a big, breathless tale of nonstop suspense.”
– Janet Maslin, New York Times
“The pages fly by ferociously fast. Simply unputdownable.”
"Massive in many senses, but none more so than its ability to exert a vice-like grip on the reader....Destined to be spy thriller of the year."
– Irish Independent
“Once you start this taut and muscular thriller, you won't be able to put it down.”
– Library Journal, starred review
“[A] powerful and formidably researched globe-spanning thriller.”
– Publisher's Weekly
"I Am Pilgrim is a twelve-course meal of a thriller.... A breathtaking accomplishment of a debut."
– Gregg Hurwitz, New York Times bestselling author of Tell No Lies
"The best book of 2014."
– Suspense Magazine
"Debut novelist Hayes brings well-refined storytelling chops to...[good] entertainment for readers with a penchant for mayhem, piles of bodies and a lethal biochemical agent or two."
– Kirkus Reviews
"The strongest [thriller] in years . . . a taut, global trek . . . a long and perfect pilgrimage. (Grade: A)"
– Cleveland Plain Dealer
“I am Pilgrim is a great, gripping thrill ride of a novel (that still feels grounded in reality). If you're looking for an action thriller/spy story for the beach, Pilgrim is a winner.”
– The Hollywood Reporter
"Exhilarating...Hayes masterfully guides readers through an incredibly elaborate, drum-tight plot."
“A debut thriller reminiscent of John le Carre.”
– Wichita Eagle
“The storytelling and a truly intriguing protagonist make “I Am Pilgrim” a contender for best-of-the-year lists.”
– Associated Press
“I AM PILGRIM has all the elements of a blockbuster thriller.”
– Denver Post
"Whatever you’re doing right now, stand up and turn around. Take a good look at the edge of your seat. That’s where you’ll be clinging when you read I Am Pilgrim.”
– Naples Daily News
"I Am Pilgrim features great character development and an expansive, ambitious storyline as it sets the standard for the post-9/11 spy thriller."
– S. Krishna Books
“Tom Clancy meets Robin Cook in a thriller that should find a place in many beach bags this summer.”
“Pilgrim turns out to be the most fascinating thriller hero I’ve encountered since Trevanian’s legendary Nicolai Hel... Bracing, blisteringly original, and hopefully not the last time we see both Hayes and Pilgrim.”
– Providence Journal
"The narrative is thrilling: the tension tightens with action...It's a murder mystery, an illuminating account of contemporary international politics and a study of an unusual man......An excellent thriller which as a first novel is really remarkable."
– Literary Review, UK
"The next 'Girl with the Dragon Tattoo'."
– The New York Post
"This murder mystery/spy thriller grabs you from the first sentence and won’t let you out of its grip. A brilliant American secret agent and forensics expert is in a race against the clock to stop a terrorist with a plan to destroy the United States. Please fasten your seat belt."
– Kate White, New York Times bestselling author of EYES ON YOU
"'I Am Pilgrim' is [a] gripping debut novel, which pits a brilliant intelligence operative against an equally brilliant terrorist. Weighing in at over 600 pages, you get your money’s worth and more with this thriller."
– Brad Thor, New York Times bestselling author of ACT OF WAR
“An intriguing, multi-perspective thriller… the story made me almost miss my subway stop.”
– People Magazine
''Dude, freak out. That's my new Gone Girl. Gone Girl was the last book that I couldn't put down. Seriously, email me when you read it. You'll be five chapters in, and you'll look up and be like, 'Dude!'''
– Jimmy Fallon, Entertainment Weekly
Resources and Downloads
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- Book Cover Image (jpg): I Am Pilgrim Trade Paperback 9781439177730
- Author Photo (jpg): Terry Hayes Photograph (c) Kristin Hayes(0.1 MB)
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