I first heard about James Deegan‘s first novel Once a Pilgrim from a commentator at Tim Worstall’s blog, who knew the author and confirmed he was bona fide ex-SAS and not some walt who told chicks down the bar that it was he, not the four thousand others, who was on the balcony in 1980. When I was a teenager I’d read Andy McNab’s Bravo Two Zero and Chris Ryan’s The One That Got Away which launched a whole rash of books written by ex-SAS servicemen, and afterwards I read a few more of the same genre. Eventually I got a bit bored of them and grew up a bit, and now when I see a novel about some SAS hero I don’t give it a second glance. But given the recommendation of Tim Worstall’s commenter and the confidence that Deegan was genuinely ex-SAS, I decided to give it a go.
It’s a good book. It starts with an SAS veteran by the name of John Carr winding up his military service in Iraq before retiring to take a job in London on the security team of a Russian oligarch. I’m not sure what the purpose of the Iraq scenes were, other than perhaps to show the guy is a badass who is no stranger to blood and violence, for we never return there. Instead the story shifts to Belfast during the Troubles, and from there the story really begins. The plot is fairly straightforward and concerns an incident which happened in Belfast in the 1980s which catches up with Carr in the modern day. We have gunmen, fast cars, dodgy Russians, murders, fistfights, swanky flats and plenty of booze all coming together in a thoroughly enjoyable fast-paced yarn.
One aspect which stands out, and which is the book’s strongest point, is the level of tactical detail Deegan goes into: which weapons Carr uses, how he walks, where he stands, how he approaches certain situations and in some areas it’s almost like a guide to how an SAS soldier goes about his business. The fact you know this is being written by someone who knows what he’s on about makes it a pleasure to read; there’s nothing worse than reading a military book, or watching a TV programme on the same subject, with the main characters engaged in bum tactics. The fact that this never gets bogged down in unnecessary detail and tedious technical descriptions is testament to the skills of the author, or perhaps the editor. So if you’re into military stuff, particularly operational details, you’ll like this book.
One minor quibble is you’d probably need a half-decent understanding of Northern Ireland politics and a history of the Troubles to not get lost: there are a lot of acronyms which aren’t explained, and I was fortunate enough to know them.
The weakest point of the book is probably the main character, John Carr. The problem is that he’s too perfect, and I wonder if Deegan hasn’t engaged in some authorial fantasy. If an ex-SAS NCO is writing a book and the lead character is an ex-SAS NCO who’s physically immense, hard as nails, loaded with cash, living in a swanky pad in London, cocky, funny, hard-drinking, and loved by everyone except a handful of baddies you start to wonder if the character isn’t just how the author wishes he was. It’s very tempting to do this as a novice author, and it quickly becomes obvious: Stieg Larsson’s books suffered badly from this.
The most annoying part is every woman Carr meets want to sleep with him. His first conquest is the young daughter of his former officer, which was rather too cliched. From there a neighbour who lives with her boyfriend asks him out in the stairwell; a pretty girl at the gym shows an obvious interest; a lawyer abandons all professional ethics and admits she sleeps with her clients, and he ought to call her sometime; and he picks up a high-flying American executive in a hotel bar within seconds of sitting down, her friend abandoning her immediately to this stranger so she can get laid. None of this requires any effort on his part, it’s all the women’s doing. Now I don’t care how fit and handsome a 40 year old man is, women don’t behave like this, not at that frequency anyway. And if he was some shitlord alpha male who traps like ten men, his marriage would have ended badly due to infidelity, not because they ever-so-pleasantly just drifted apart. I found it rather tedious and I’m surprised the editor didn’t cut it out; I can only assume people who consume these type of books want the hero to walk around pulling women like James Bond. In fairness, they probably know the market better than me.
Deegan is in the process of writing another book and John Carr is likely to feature in a whole series. I think the lead character can be improved by binning his dallies with women and giving him a few character flaws, making his actions less predictable and the reader to wonder if he doesn’t have a dark side we’ve yet to learn about.
Overall Once a Pilgrim is a good, solid story with a decent lead character and, if you’re into SAS-style action books, you will certainly enjoy it and might even find it’s one of the best in the genre. As a debut effort it’s impressive, and I’m sure Deegan can apply more of his life experience to good effect in subsequent books. I score if 4 out of 5.