|Cardinal Jacopo Lomeli is the Italian Dean of the Sacred College of Cardinals in the Vatican so has the responsibility of running the conclave to elect a new Pope. He is 75 years old and a weak and tired old man, but with a desperate sense of duty that keeps him going. He still lives a life of constant prayer, despite no longer having the same "communion with the Holy Spirit that he had once been able to achieve quite naturally."
He had previously been "the Cardinal-Bishop of Ostia. Before that he had been the Cardinal-priest of San Marcello al Corso in Rome. Before that, the titular Archbishop of Aquileia." But he still felt that he lacked "the most basic skills of the commonest country priest. If only he had experienced life in an ordinary parish, just for a year or two! Instead, ever since his ordination, his path of service - first as a professor of canon law, then as a diplomat, and finally, briefly, as Secretary of State - had seemed only to lead him away from God rather than towards Him." He had even offered his resignation to the late Pope but it had been refused as the Pope highly valued his services as a "manager". He is a model of "passivity, gravity, coolness, dignity, steadiness," but he is nothing if not resourceful and is even prepared to break in to the late Pope's locked room if necessary.
His own "guilty recreation was detective fiction" and, when the need arises, he himself turns out to be a surprisingly effective detective as he unearths guilty secrets that some of his fellow cardinals are determined to hide.
Robert Harris (1957 - ) grew up in Nottingham, England, and was educated at Belvoir High School in Bottesford, and then King Edward VII School, Melton Mowbray. He went on to read English at Selwyn College, Cambridge, where he was elected president of the Cambridge Union. After joining the BBC he worked on news and current affairs programmes before becoming became political editor of The Observer.
He has published a whole series of bestselling novels including the Cicero Trilogy, set in ancient Rome, and as a result was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. Another of his books, The Second Sleep, is also reviewed on this site.
He lives with his wife (they have four children) near Newbury in Berkshire. Although not a believer himself, he says that, "I don't think this book (Conclave, reviewed below) could have been written by a complete atheist."
Conclave is set when the Pope (who is obviously modelled on the current Pope Francis) has just died. During his lifetime he been much criticised by traditionalists. Even the loyal Cardinal Lomeli who, as Dean of the Sacred College, had to lead the conclave, had "privately thought the late Pope had occasionally gone too far in his endless harping on about simplicity and humility. An excess of simplicity, after all, was just another form of ostentation, and pride in one's humility a sin."
Now that the Pope is dead, the old traditionalists are one of the groups determined to seize power when, behind the locked doors of the Sistine Chapel, one hundred and eighteen cardinals from all over the globe are to cast their votes in the world's most secretive election. Lomeli believes their success would be a disaster for the church. Then he discovers that the leading candidates include two with guilty secrets that he knows it to be his duty to reveal, even if this increases his own chance of being elected - something that he certainly doesn't want. At the last minute, an unexpected cardinal arrives from Baghdad. it turns out that he had been appointed cardinal in pictore, in other words in secret - and that is not the only unusual thing about him.
The story is told with conviction and indeed some humour as when Lomeli is re-examining Michelangelo's The Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel and his companion says, "I'd say this is a pretty fair vision of hell."
"Don't be blasphemous, Ray," replied O'Malley. "Hell arrives tomorrow, when we bring in the cardinals."
It has been thoroughly researched, too, and is full of revealing details about the election process and the life of cardinals, as when we are told that Lomeli's celibacy "had not made him feel neutered or frustrated, but rather powerful and fulfilled. Yet "he was not entirely naive. He had known what it was to desire, and to be desired, both by women and by men. And yet he had never succumbed to physical attraction." He still always lay in bed with "his arms folded crosswise on his chest. It was a posture he had first adopted in puberty to avoid the temptations of the body."
Except for the final surprise that provides a rather gimmicky ending ( which, the author insists, is not something had been "simply tacked on for effect"), the story is told in a thoroughly convincing way with lively characters who certainly hold the interest. It has been described as unputdownable and that has been my experience too. The subject may sound a little dull, but the author's treatment of it certainly isn't. So, despite the fact that Lomeli is far from being a conventional sort of detective, I would thoroughly recommend it.
There is an informative article about the author in Wikipedia.
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