Book Review: Conclave

Conclave by Richard Harris. (Publisher: Hutchinson. Paperback 978-0-0919-5918-0)

In a letter addressed to the Christians in the city of Corinth, written either in AD 95 or 96 and attributed to Pope St Clement I (he was Bishop of Rome from AD 92 to 101), the author rebukes them for their dissensions, outbursts of anger and fighting:

Your bickering has depraved many; it has cast many into despondency, many into doubt and all of us into grief. Yet your turbulence still persists!

In his attempt to put an end to the discord, Clement echoes the sentiments of St Paul found in the first letter to the Corinthians (3:1- 23). In 2017 we are all too aware of the sharp divisions that persist within the Church. The most recent example may be found in the highly unusual action taken by four cardinals (Walter Brandmüller, Raymond L. Burke, Carlo Caffarra and Joachim Meisner) last September in writing to the Pope asking for clarification of his apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia. In this admirably researched fictional work, Robert Harris explores the Church’s internal divisions and politics over a period of seventy-two hours as, behind locked doors, cardinals from across the world prepare to elect a new Pope.

These days, works of fiction rarely feature in my list of books to read, but this was not always the case. In my twenties I was captivated by the novels of Morris West, particularly those with a religious theme: The Devil’s Advocate, The Shoes of the Fisherman and The Clowns of God. Harris is a worthy successor to West in his first foray into the genre.

Try as I might, it was hard to resist the thought that the recently deceased Pope referred to in the first chapter is Pope Francis. The reference to him dying in the Casa Santa Mater, and not the Apostolic Palace, is a further clue, as is the mention of the fact that this accommodation block was constructed during John Paul II’s pontificate and completed twenty years earlier, in 1996. This clearly sets the book in the present. As I read on, so the more easily individuals within the present College of Cardinals could be identified; albeit with their names and, in some cases, their nationalities changed. That perhaps explains the absence of a disclaimer stating that all persons portrayed in the book are fictitious.

As the title suggests, the action is centred on one hundred and seventeen cardinals gathered in Rome to elect a new Pope. They are accommodated in the aforementioned Casa Santa Mater, where the rooms’ shutters have been sealed, and where access to TVs, radios, mobile phones, tablets, laptops is denied. The surprise arrival of an extra cardinal momentarily ruffles feathers. It emerges that he was secretly made a cardinal In pectore (Latin = in the breast/heart) shortly before the Pope’s death, the secrecy being necessary because of his ministry in a sensitive and violent place, Baghdad.

Here is a thriller where the principle characters are not being bumped off, left, right and centre although I did find myself wishing that the odious Patriarch of Venice, Cardinal Tedesco, had come to a sticky end.

There is plenty of manoeuvring between the characters, a break-in, compromising documents discovered in secret compartments; all the ingredients of a ripping yarn. I sensed there would be a rousing ending, I even guessed correctly who would ascend to the Throne of St Peter, but the final revelation is a jaw-dropping twist that I had not expected.

John Ashman