Harris, creator of grand, symphonic thrillers from Fatherland (1992) to An Officer and a Spy (2014), scores with a chamber piece of a novel set in the Vatican in the days after a fictional pope dies.
Fictional, yes, but the nameless pontiff has a lot in common with our own Francis: he’s famously humble, shunning the lavish Apostolic Palace for a small apartment, and he is committed to leading a church that engages with the world and its problems. In the aftermath of his sudden death, rumors circulate about the pope’s intention to fire certain cardinals. At the center of the action is Cardinal Lomeli, Dean of the College of Cardinals, whose job it is to manage the conclave that will elect a new pope. He believes it is also his duty to uncover what the pope knew before he died because some of the cardinals in question are in the running to succeed him. “In the running” is an apt phrase because, as described by Harris, the papal conclave is the ultimate political backroom—albeit a room, the Sistine Chapel, covered with Michelangelo frescoes. Vying for the papal crown are an African cardinal whom many want to see as the first black pope, a press-savvy Canadian, an Italian arch-conservative (think Cardinal Scalia), and an Italian liberal who wants to continue the late pope’s campaign to modernize the church. The novel glories in the ancient rituals that constitute the election process while still grounding that process in the real world: the Sistine Chapel is fitted with jamming devices to thwart electronic eavesdropping, and the pressure to act quickly is increased because “rumours that the pope is dead are already trending on social media.”
An illuminating read for anyone interested in the inner workings of the Catholic Church; for prelate-fiction superfans, it is pure temptation.