I had been an admirer of Harris’s work for a number of years and bought this on the strength of his ability to inform, tease, and entertain me. I have to say that I found this the strangest of his thrillers to date, and yet one which was at the same time, satisfying.
What is different about the book is the extremely limited scope. There is limited terrorism, gunfire, bombs, and death, but all this takes place in a very minor capacity, almost at a tangent to the central focus. All of the main “action” takes place within the Vatican – within two buildings, in fact. The “action” is simply the election of a new pope.
Given the limited scope, the book, on the surface, sounds as if it could have been very boring. However, nothing could be further from the truth. By limiting his attention Harris has succeeded in creating a very intense, powerful portrayal of a religious and political intrigue.
Throughout the book there are many underlying currents of conflict that occasionally come to the surface – some more dramatically than others: the Italians versus the rest; the traditionalists versus the reformists; a faith based on poverty led by some very rich prelates; a world of men trying to deny or cope with the allure of women (or other men). What unites all this is a detailed view of a fallen humanity – of church leaders struggling to cope (and often failing) with their fallibility, despite the fact that one of them is about to become the new Pope.
In addition to the humanity, the detail is compelling. Harris was granted special access to parts of the Vatican closed to the outside. We not only learn about canon law and the regulations and rituals surrounding the election of a pontiff, but we also see the walls, the ceilings, the windows, and the cobbles. The world where the Cardinals fight their battles beneath prayers and smiles is very real.
And yes, there is a shock at the end.