I am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes

I read this tome of a book on a recommendation from the crime book club on facebook. It may serve as a warning to me not to always listen to internet recommendations. I thought this was an acceptable spy novel, it is written as if it is being retold after the events have happened with lots of sentences such as little did I know this was going to happen. I find this way of writing books quite annoying although that may be a personal issue with that particular style of writing. There are two clear parts to this book a crime section and the spy/thriller part, the crime section feels as though it has been added for padding and to make the book a suitable “epic” length to fit the authors preference for that type of book.

The book is set in a number of different countries and flicks between past events in the main characters life and the events in the main story. This can be a little confusing as it isn’t always clearly marked out in the book when the time changes happen and as there are multiple threads to the story you occasionally have to reread sections of the book to work out what is happening. The characters in the book are not very well developed and although there should be an air of mystery about our spy and terrorist, it feels like there is some depth and substance missing from all the characters, you find yourself engaging with very few of the characters mentioned in the book and if asked to describe them you would find it very difficult. Some of the secondary characters are slightly more developed however and there is a good description of the events of 9/11 and its lasting effects on the survivors that is an enjoyable part of the story.

The crime section doesn’t really add to the story in anyway other than to introduce a couple of characters who you could meet through the course of events in the other story. The spy/thriller section is passable, about a terrorist who decides to strike against the far enemy America by constructing a virulent strain of smallpox that the hero spy must race to stop him unleashing. It feels passably well researched as you are reading it although a little unimaginative, why do the bad guys always go for smallpox, there are many easier viruses to work with that are very scary such as Spanish flu or ebola or SARS, or you could unleash plague or Anthrax as bacterial weapons but no the weapon of choice is always smallpox, a rather slow acting, low transmission disease (as you generally need direct and fairly prolonged face to face contact for transmission to occur).

My other issue with this book is if you are going to pass something off as well researched and intelligent, than you need to make sure it stands up to more than 10 minutes of google searching on an iphone to debunk. Now I have a specialism in genetics and because I’m a little odd I find viruses fascinating and studied them in dedicated elective modules at uni so maybe I picked up on errors others wouldn’t but any research would point some problems in the book, which I will go on to describe below.

I discovered the main error when he said Smallpox was 185,758 letters long, now DNA (which is my specialty) is always read in sections of three called Codons, these codons make genes, so technically the letters that make up the virus should be divisible by three, this is an error also made when he describes Polio as having 7,741 base pairs (or letters). This is what first alerted me to errors in his research and indeed a simple google search gives the actual base pair number of Smallpox as 180,000 and Polio as 7,500 numbers that work far better mathematically.

The next issue comes with how he manufactures the virus, it would be easy to construct Smallpox DNA because it has been sequenced and anyone with passable knowledge of genetics and access to the internet could probably get there hands on a copy although they may need to register for some bioinformatics or science journal accounts to do so (thereby leaving a trail), my image discovered of smallpox information is below.


He manufactures Smallpox by ordering the base pairs on line which at least according to my research is actually relatively unpoliced, no details or information is kept about where this stuff is sent to or what it might be used for. However when the Guardian newspaper tried ordering a 5,000 base pair section of the smallpox genome they didn’t get a working section, which would have caused our terrorist some serious delays as there base pairs had been modified by the addition of 3 stop codons which would have to be reverse engineered out in order for it to work, a problem that would require access to specialist enzymes that are quite expensive to get hold of and like all enzymes require certain conditions to be able to work effectively. I’m not saying this couldn’t be done in someone’s garage in fact it probably could and fair play to him for coming up with a scary idea, but do the research and present the facts properly it would have made the story more interesting if he had a few issues making his scary virus.


3 thoughts on “I am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes

  1. Ken says:

    I’m loving this book. I’m about 1/3 into it, and I just read the building smallpox from scratch bit. It’s just not possible to do this as depicted in the book. It’s an enormous undertaking. I’m a bit pissed that Terry Hayes had Saracen go this route. A nice trip to a dark virus bunker in Iran would have been more probable and entertaining – maybe some more eye socket shenanigans 🙂
    Nice site, btw.


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