‘Conclave. From the Latin con clavis: ‘with a key.’ ‘ and the term for the meeting of Cardinals, the Princes of the Catholic church gathered together to elect a new Pope.
It is hard to imagine that such an event could provide the basis of a thriller, but Robert Harris has done just that: his latest novel cannot be described any other way, for it is as suspenseful and shocking – particularly at the end, as it should be – as any thriller worthy of the name.
Mr Harris sets his plot in Rome a few years hence: the Holy Father has died of a heart attack and, after the pomp and magnificence of his funeral obsequies have been completed, it is time to convene all those eligible to select his successor. Papal tradition must be observed at all times: when the cardinals are locked in the Sistine Chapel to vote they do so in absolute secrecy; their voting papers and any notes they make are burnt when they leave the chapel in the evening. A Papal Election must to be seen to be utterly scrupulous and above reproach, one hundred and twenty of Catholicism’s finest advocates voting according to God’s wishes.
Except that as the hours wear on, it becomes clear that there are men of ambition hiding behind piety and humility – Jacobo Lomeli, Dean of the College of Cardinals and Convenor of each increasingly tense meeting in the Sistine Chapel is appalled to discover that the whole process is just as riven with factions, innuendo and scandal as any secular election. He is a good man – and an honest one as he admits that the late Holy Father would not accept his resignation from office ‘because we need managers’. He feels slighted. Surely his religious career of more than fifty years has elevated him into higher realms than a ‘manager’. Nevertheless, he decides to make the best possible job of ‘managing’ the selection of the next Pope, but is not above allowing himself a cynical smirk as he reviews the front-running candidates:
The current Camerlengo (Chamberlain) of the Holy See, Cardinal Joseph Tremblay, a French-Canadian very conscious of his film-star looks and perfectly coiffed silvery hair; Cardinal Joshua Ayedemi, a mighty Nigerian with a powerful physique and a bass-baritone voice to match, and the African continent’s great hope to be the first black Pope, and Lomeli’s own personal preference, Cardinal Aldo Bellini, Secretary of State. Lomeli prays fervently that the right man will be chosen for the huge task of leading the Church and more than a billion Catholics with courage and honesty, but as voting progresses and stalemates occur it becomes plain that God is not going to make the choice easy for the 118 cardinals.
An added complication is the late arrival of a mysterious Filipino cardinal appointed secretly by the late Pope: Cardinal Vincent Benitez, Archbishop of Baghdad is unknown to everyone, but his credentials are impeccable; he has as much right to vote – and be considered for Pontiff – as every other man in the room. It appears that the Late Holy Father is controlling events even beyond the grave, especially when Lomeli starts reluctantly investigating scandalous rumours connected to various candidates and is horrified at what he finds: the love of God comes a poor second to the love of power.
Mr Harris propelled me at lightning speed through the twists and turns of his masterly plot; the grandeur of St Peter’s, great bastion of Christendom has never been more eloquently portrayed and his characters are all too recognisable for the men they are, rather than the paragons they desire to be.