Conclave, by Robert Harris

The pope is dead. It falls to Cardinal Lomeli, Dean of the College of Cardinals, to oversee the Conclave to elect the new pope.

The one hundred and eighteen men who gather to elect a new pope are a diverse mix: conservatives and liberals from every corner of the world, some desperate for the prize, some dreading the prospect.

I started reading this book the day after Donald Trump was elected, on a minority of the votes as it transpired, as President of the United States. I was desperate for a story to transport me from the bleak reality.

It can be a bit hit and miss on the cheeriness front with Harris – things turned out okay for Dreyfus in An Officer and a Spy, Cicero not so much. But Harris always puts together a good political thriller, and this is no exception with the growing tension as the voting in the Sistine chapel proceeds.

At the heart of the story is Lomeli, a man of faith and doubt, trying his best to behave honourably in the face of the dark secrets and challenges that emerge. I don’t know what Harris’ own religious views are but he provides a deeply sympathetic and empathetic account of the beliefs and thinking of the high cleric and committed Catholic at the heart of the story.

As a remarkable coincidence after I finished this book early one morning I switched on the television to see a 2011 interview with Robert Harris talking about Graham Greene’s novel, The End of the Affair. In the interview Harris concluded that there has never been anyone who can quite fill the gap left by Greene, a writer of gripping thrillers which wrestled with serious moral concerns and complex philosophical issues. I’m not so sure that since he gave that interview in 2011, Harris himself hasn’t made a creditable claim on Greene’s mantle.

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