by Robert Harris
Behind the locked doors of the Sistine Chapel, one hundred and eighteen cardinals from all over the globe will cast their votes in the world’s most secretive election.
They are holy men. But they have ambition. And they have rivals.
Over the next seventy-two hours one of them will become the most powerful spiritual figure on earth.
The Pope is dead.
The cardinals must now head to Rome to take part in the oldest and most secretive of elections, to select a new pope from their group. And they have about 72 hours to do so.
The cardinals must come up with a two-thirds majority decision to satisfy the waiting 50 million Catholics who require a decisive announcement. The church is a universal one, with many different languages spoken and priorities to address. What it means to be catholic varies with each continent - making a choice for all will be a challenge. Will the new man be liberal and modernising, or conventional and conservative?
Joining the pope-pickers is Cardinal Benitez, a late entry into the process. Benitez was given his position in pectore — that means the pope appointed him in secret. Benitez was working in Iraq so his role had to be handled delicately.
Overseeing this conclave is Cardinal Lomeli, dean of the College of Cardinals. A good man who battles his urges and doubts but wants what’s best for his God and church.
The early candidates soon begin to emerge. Bellini, an intellectual Italian at ease with reform, is Lomeli’s choice. Tedesco, a traditionalist who’d insist on the use of Latin, would help keep the seat of the church in Rome. Tremblay, an ambitious Canadian, would satisfy many in the media. Whilst Adeyemi, a Nigerian with strong views on homosexuality, would become the first black pope. Each has his followers but none are close to the numbers needed to win after the first ballot.
Each candidate has hidden flaws which come to light as the novel progresses. How one loses votes and how they affect the process is captivating. The plot is a simple one - this is not Angels and Demons.
We move through each round of voting with a new twist or revelation, during which the delay in reaching a result may damage the reputation of the new pope. Lomeli’s role is to help reach a decisive result, but what if that is not God’s way. He grants free will but should a vote be cast for the best man for the job or one who can actually win?
Lomeli is good company. A dedicated man (he makes a derogatory remark about a cardinal and must remember to confess his sin later) he is a man, no less. And like any other sane man, he doesn’t want the papacy. It’s a calvary and only a fool or worse could want to be pope.
But positions of power can corrupt. Scheming and conspiracy are never far away. In some ways this is a detective novel as Lomeli must investigate the potential problems of each likely candidate who might become pope.
A recurring theme is sexual temptation. Lomeli himself is known to sleep with his arms crossed over his chest to keep sinful urges at bay, whilst others have their own issues.
The procedural and historical details are interesting, and the modern day setting with its tensions between hard-line conservatives and liberal reformers, has modern parallels.
As for the final act, it is explosive. I’ll say no more.
About Robert Harris:
Harris is the author of 12 bestselling novels including Enigma, The Ghost, Fatherland and An Officer and a Spy.