71 pages 2 hours read

Terry Hayes

I Am Pilgrim

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2013

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Summary and Study Guide


I Am Pilgrim is a 2014 spy thriller by Terry Hayes. The work was his first novel and became a New York Times bestseller. He worked as a journalist before transitioning to writing for film and television. His major credits include Payback, Mad Max 2 (released as The Road Warrior in the US), and Dead Calm.

Content Warning: This study guide and its source material discuss recreational drug use, death by suicide, depictions of torture, and harm and threats of harm to children. The source material periodically uses outdated, offensive terms for Romani people, which are replicated in this guide only in direct quotes.

Plot Summary

The work opens at a hotel crime scene, where an investigator the reader will come to know as Murdoch soon realizes the killer was extremely skilled. Murdoch explains that he is a retired spy who previously worked at an American intelligence agency known as the Division, tasked with investigating crime and corruption within the intelligence services. The reader will soon learn that Murdoch is intensely preoccupied with the moral nature of this work and its impact on his character.

Orphaned at a young age after his mother’s murder and adopted by wealthy foster parents, Bill and Grace Murdoch, Murdoch studies psychology and is recruited into the world of espionage. He is forced to execute his boss and mentor, the head of the agency’s European division. He is commended by the president but remains haunted by the act. Murdoch reflects that he was particularly callous toward a wealthy Swiss banker because of his knowledge of Swiss complicity with Hitler’s regime and a formative trip to a concentration camp and museum with his foster father.

Murdoch describes his attempt to retire from the agency after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, render his agency obsolete. He hopes to begin a new life in Paris but is found by a New York homicide detective who decoded his identity from his pseudonymous book on forensics and criminology. The man, Ben Bradley, was especially heroic on 9/11, and Murdoch befriends and consults for him. This is the basis for the mysterious case that opens the book.

At the same time, Murdoch introduces the key aspect of his story: the international manhunt for a bioterrorist inspired by radical Islam to attack the United States. This man, whom Murdoch code-names the Saracen, after an old term for an Arab who fought Christians in the Crusades, has a background not unlike Murdoch’s own. His family is struck by tragedy when his father is executed for criticizing Saudi Arabia’s monarchy. The young Saracen vows vengeance and is so alienated from his mother’s increasing Westernization that he goes to fight in the Soviet-Afghan war. He comes to believe an attack on the US is key to toppling the Saudi monarchy.

As an older man and trained doctor, the Saracen begins preparations for his bioterrorism plot: to engineer vaccine-resistant smallpox and introduce it to the American population. Murdoch describes his brutal killing of a medical director to obtain the smallpox vaccine so he can begin his experiments, establishing his skill and dedication. Murdoch, the reader learns, continues to investigate a case known as the Eastside Inn case, reluctantly agreeing to participate in a criminology symposium as a gesture of gratitude. Murdoch befriends a hacker named Battleboi who prevents others from tracking his identity the way Bradley did.

Soon after, the Saracen calls on his former contacts in Afghanistan and tests his engineered virus on hostages. All his hostages die horrifically, and he is nearly captured by NATO forces but escapes unseen. Evidence of his virus remains, however, and the president and his closest advisers begin tracking the possible source of the pathogen. The director of national intelligence, known only as Whisperer, summons Murdoch for the mission to track and identify the Saracen. He chooses the code name “Pilgrim.” His only key is a coded phone call from Bodrum, Turkey: the same city the Eastside Inn killer identified in her room.

Murdoch goes to Turkey to track the phone call and find the Saracen’s contact. He poses as an FBI agent assigned to investigate the mysterious death of a prominent American billionaire, Dodge, who fell off a cliff while watching fireworks. He is stunned to learn when he arrives that the death is being ruled accidental because Dodge was completely alone when he fell. The Turkish police, especially the detective assigned to the case, Leyla Cumali, resent his presence as a foreign interloper. Murdoch is drawn to Cumali’s young son. Murdoch finally realizes that the fireworks the night of the murder and their chemical reaction with the mirrors in the estate library may prove Dodge’s killer was in the room with him, if he can “develop” the mirrors like photographic film.

Murdoch proves his theory and identifies the woman the Saracen spoke to as Cumali. He is nearly caught sneaking into her house but finds evidence of her maiden name and has Battleboi trace her origins to Saudi Arabia.

Murdoch discovers a secret passage in the mansion where Dodge died, proving that the killer could have gotten in and establishing that the home was previously a refuge for Nazis seeking to escape Europe via the sea. In the secret passage, he hears Dodge’s wife, Cameron, speaking with a woman she seems close to. Murdoch immediately suspects that this woman is Cameron’s accomplice in murdering Dodge, as their prenuptial agreement’s terms limited her access to his money in the event of divorce.

The Saracen successfully infiltrates a German pharmaceutical company and has his virus shipped there. He plans to replace the labels on doses of the annual flu vaccine, ensuring that thousands of people will receive deadly smallpox.

Murdoch steals DNA evidence from Cumali’s home, proving that the young child she cares for is her nephew: the Saracen has a son. Murdoch unsuccessfully interrogates Dodge’s wife, Cameron, and the woman he suspects is her accomplice, Ingrid Kohl. He goes to Saudi Arabia to track the Saracen’s origins, learning that his real name is Zakaria al-Nassouri. He begins to despair, however, once he realizes al-Nassouri has taken an entirely new identity that appears in no public records. Finally, he concocts a desperate plan: to kidnap al-Nassouri’s son to ensure he will confess his entire plan.

Murdoch lets Cumali lure him into a trap, horrified to realize that he is facing torture via waterboarding, a form of simulated drowning. Murdoch depends on Bradley to save him by alerting Cumali and al-Nassouri to the child’s danger, but the call nearly fails due to lack of phone reception. Finally, the call goes through and Cumali urges her brother to abandon his plans and save his child. Murdoch, wounded and delirious, interrogates him successfully and passes the information to the United States president.

Murdoch, gravely injured, boards a boat and has his wounds treated by a doctor he met on a previous mission. He recovers and learns that Cameron and Ingrid have escaped Turkey after paying a bribe. He buys a boat, feeling destined for it once he learns it is called Nomad. He sails for the Italian coast, learning via newspaper that Cameron has died with Ingrid, her new wife, as her sole heir—her real plan was revenge and to inherit Cameron’s wealth. As he sails, Murdoch senses that his mother and foster father are with him, quietly joyful.