Conclave by Robert Harris

The Pope is dead, long live the Pope…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

conclaveCardinal Lomeli fears the worst when he gets an urgent summons to the bedside of the elderly Pope. By the time he gets there, the Pope has died. Even as the various cardinals kneel by his bedside to pray, one thought is in all of their minds – a new Pope will have to be chosen, and soon. Some are ambitious and would welcome the challenge, some even have informal teams in place to canvas for them, others fear the enormity of the role and include in their prayers a plea to God that He will not choose them. As Dean of the College of Cardinals, Cardinal Lomeli will have the task of running the Conclave – the meeting of all the cardinal electors to whom will fall the task of selecting the new Pope.

This is an absolutely fascinating and absorbing look at the process of how a new Pope is chosen. In the first few pages, we are introduced to so many people that I feared I’d never get a handle on who they all were, but quite quickly Harris develops the main players well enough for them to start to emerge as individuals, and, as the book goes on, we, like the cardinals, spend so much time sequestered in the claustrophobic atmosphere of the Conclave that we become aware of their weakness and strengths. The Conclave works as a series of ballots, and by about the second ballot, I found I was totally engrossed in picking the man I thought would make the best Pope just as much as the characters in the book were.

Of course, this is a novel, not a factual book, so Harris makes sure there are plenty of scandals and secrets to come out, each one subtly changing the balance of power amongst the cardinals. But I found it refreshing that he chose not to try to denigrate the process by making it look like an entirely political battle for control of this enormously powerful organisation, nor by going for the easy target of the recent child abuse scandals. While many of the characters are flawed and ambitious, they are on the whole shown as true Christians, struggling through prayer and conscience to decide what’s best for their Church and their religion. We see the desire of the majority of these men to open their hearts to God, believing that He will guide them in their decision. I don’t know, of course, whether it’s really like that in a Conclave, but I rather hope it is.

On Lomeli went. Bellini… Benitez… Brandão D’Cruz… Brotkus… Cárdenas… Contreras… Courtemarche… He knew them all so much better now, their foibles and their weaknesses. A line of Kant’s came into his mind: “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made…” The Church was built of crooked timber – how could it not be? But by the grace of God it fitted together. It had endured two thousand years; if necessary it would last another two weeks without a Pope. He felt suffused by a deep and mysterious love for his colleagues and their frailties.

Crucifixion of St Peter by Michelangelo in the Pauline Chapel where the ballots are cast...
Michelangelo’s Crucifixion of St Peter in the Pauline Chapel where the ballots are cast…

Harris shows the divisions in the Church between the traditionalists and the modernisers, suggesting almost that the Church could be facing schism if the new Pope fails to find a way to bridge the gulf. The Italian cardinals still think of it as their Church and hope for a return to an Italian papacy; the African cardinals feel liberalisation has gone too far, particularly over questions like homosexuality, and have a keen desire to see the first black Pope; the Americans and Europeans would like to see that liberalisation taken still further, with even some dangerous talk of women being given more prominent positions in the higher echelons of the Curia. And the plot also touches on the question of the religious fundamentalism sweeping the world, bringing war and terror in its wake, and how the various factions feel the Church should respond to that.

Amidst all this, Cardinal Lomeli must deal with the secrets that come to light, battling with his conscience as to how much he should allow himself to interfere with the process. Sequestered from the world for the duration, still scraps of information make their way in that could influence the minds of the electors. Should he tell, or should he remain silent? Will his interference look like a shabby attempt to sway the vote in his own preferred direction? Lomeli is a wonderful character, fully developed and entirely believable, a man who finds more strength than he ever thought he had, and who spends much of his time searching his own heart in a bid to ensure that he is truly open to God’s will.

I read this book over two days and any time I had to stop, I couldn’t wait to get back to it. You may be wondering then why it hasn’t got the full five stars from me. And annoyingly, I can’t tell you because it would take the review deep into spoiler territory. So all I can say is that the book crossed the credibility line twice for me – once forgivably in terms of taking some fictional licence, but the other leaving me feeling that the amazingly authentic impression given by the bulk of the book had been somewhat spoiled. So I’m afraid it only gets four and a half stars in the end, despite having been one of the books I’ve most enjoyed reading this year. But I still highly recommend it, especially since your credibility line may well be drawn in a different place from mine. And I hope you’ll all read it very quickly because, if I don’t have someone to discuss it with soon, I may well spontaneously combust!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Hutchinson.

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Tuesday ’Tec! The Murdered Banker by Augusto De Angelis

Make way for the soprano…

 

It’s a foggy night in Milan when Inspector De Vincenzi is called out to a murder scene. A banker has been found shot dead in the flat of Gianetto Aurigi, who by coincidence is an old friend of the Inspector. Aurigi has been dabbling unsuccessfully on the stock market and becomes the obvious suspect. But De Vincenzi isn’t convinced – partly he feels there’s more to the whole thing than meets the eye, and partly his loyalty to his friend makes him determined to investigate every other avenue before condemning him…

 

Tuesday Tec

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The Murdered Banker

 

by Augusto De Angelis

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the murdered banker

Written in 1935, this novella length story is the first appearance of Inspector De Vincenzi in a series that was apparently hugely popular in Italy and gained De Angelis a reputation as father of the Italian mystery novel. De Vincenzi (who apparently has no first name) is a thoughtful detective with the soul of a poet, who is as interested in the motivations of the suspects as in the physical evidence. His style is to get at the truth by a combination of interviewing and of playing weirdly cruel tricks on people, such as sending them into the room where the corpse is lying without warning them. This has the effect of creating a good deal of melodramatic reactions, from screaming fits to people sinking into coma-like states of shock. It’s not Miss Marple, that’s for sure.

“Tell me, commendatore, what’s in there? What’s happened?”
“There’s a dead body. What’s happened is that a man’s been killed.”
A tremor convulsed the little man. He clutched at Maccari’s arm, his terror rendering him pitiful.
“Oh my God! This house is cursed! Do they know that this house is cursed?”

Melodrama is something of a feature throughout. In fact, I kept expecting a heftily bosomed soprano to burst in singing an aria from Tosca. The stiff upper lip approach doesn’t seem to have figured heavily in Italian society at this time, if De Angelis’ portrayal is authentic. However in other ways the society is very similar to that in British crime fiction of the same period, full of class divisions and with an emphasis on money being, as usual, at the root of at least some of the evil. But we also have love – not reserved, quiet, British love, oh, no! Soaring, dramatic love – the kind where ecstasy is only ever an inch away from suicide! It must all have been quite exhausting…

opera gif

I’ll be honest – I didn’t enjoy the writing style much, or perhaps it was the translation. It feels clunky and sometimes sentences need to be read more than once to glean the meaning. (I did have a lot of fun trying to see if I could get my “lips trembling with indignity” though.) Often dialogue isn’t clearly attributed to the speaker so that it isn’t immediately obvious who is expressing a particular opinion, which really breaks the reading flow. I also found the dialogue unconvincing – again it has a tendency to sound a bit like an opera script. And every time a climax is approaching, De Vincenzi stops the action and sends everyone away for a few hours, so he can think calmly.

“The atmosphere in this room has reached white heat – a bad temperature for keeping one’s brain working and a clear head. I myself fear that the very rhythm of your pulses is influencing my judgement. You’ll understand, therefore, if I ask you to leave me alone with my thoughts. I must organise them and master them. All right?”

Being a murder detective seems a strange choice of profession for someone who can’t take a bit of excitement, really.

But overall, it’s an enjoyable look at the mystery writing from another country to compare with our own Golden Age writers from the same period. I would be interested in reading more from later in the series to see if De Angelis maintains the high melodramatic style or if this is simply a feature of what is after all a debut novel.

Augusto De Angelis with his niece
Augusto De Angelis with his niece

There is also a short but interesting afterword, setting the book into the context of its time, in an Italy under the control of Mussolini’s Fascists. De Angelis eventually ran foul of the regime by writing a number of anti-Fascist articles; and, after having been arrested and then released, died as a result of being beaten up by a Fascist thug in 1944. So perhaps melodramatic tragedy was never far from real life in the Italy of that period after all.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Pushkin Vertigo.

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Little Grey Cells rating: ❓ ❓ ❓ ❓

Overall story rating:      😀 😀 😀 🙂

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