It may be difficult now to recall that when John Paul II died on April 2, 2005, there was no certainty about who would be chosen to be the next pope. There were those who confidently predicted the name of Joseph Ratzinger (I was one, Piers Paul Read was another), but there were other viable candidates as well. There is always mystery surrounding a conclave, and—courtesy of the Holy Spirit—there have been plenty of surprises throughout the centuries, not least Karol Wojtyla himself.
And along with the inevitable mystery there has been occasional intrigue. Cardinals eligible to vote for Peter’s successor are assumed not to politick, but they do. That’s a minor sort of machination, and new conclave rules and security-enhanced quarters have made Renaissance-style plotting and scheming mostly improbable today. And yet among the College of Cardinals behind the sealed doors of the Sistine Chapel and among warring interest groups in the world outside the Vatican, there are indeed people who would do almost anything to see their favorite papabile step out onto the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica, people who believe that some panglossian end justifies even satanic means.
That’s the background of The Death of a Pope, the new novel by Piers Paul Read. Although this is Mr. Read fifteenth novel, he is probably best known as the author of Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors (1974), in my opinion one of the most riveting journalistic narratives of the twentieth century. It’s the story of the Uruguayan rugby team that survived a plane crash in the Chilean mountains, in part by resorting to cannibalism. It’s as brutal a tale as you’d expect, but as my friend D. Keith Mano wrote in the New York Times:
Cowardice, selfishness, whatever: their essential heroism can weather Read’s objectivity. He has made them human. Alive is thunderous entertainment: I know the events by rote, nonetheless I found it electric. And important. Alive should be read by sociologists, educators, the Joint Chiefs of Staff. By anyone, in fact, whose business it is to prepare men for adversity.
Mr. Mano also described Read’s style as “savage: unliterary, undecorated as a prosecutor’s brief,” and it’s true, too, in The Death of a Pope. In fact, the story begins in a London courtroom, where an alleged Basque terrorist, Juan Uriarte, is on trial for attempting to purchase deadly sarin nerve gas, perhaps to use against the equally deadly Janjaweed militia in Darfur. A rather ingenious defense gets him off (the sarin was only meant to kill cows in order to frighten the militiamen), although Britain’s intelligence service, MI6, is sure he’s guilty. So when a reporter covering his trial decides to follow Uriarte to Africa, the spooks make her, as we say in the United States, a “person of interest” in the case. This is where things really get interesting.
Journalist Kate Ramsay is a lapsed Catholic, the niece of a priest, and she longs for love and commitment. In Uriarte and his work on behalf of a Catholic aid agency in Uganda, she believes she has found both. Uriarte, a laicized priest, seems to be the man of her dreams—his campaigns against AIDS and on behalf of the poor (not to mention his charisma) give Kate the first inspiration she has felt since she was a girl and looked up to her beloved uncle, Father Luke Scott.
Obviously, I don’t intend to reveal the ways in which Read masterfully interweaves his characters’ stories, especially their connections to the Vatican, but they all come crashing together in the aftermath of John Paul II’s death and the election of Benedict XVI.
The Death of a Pope is, in the words of Ralph McInerny, a “theological thriller,” which means we learn a lot about Catholic belief and the inner workings of the Roman Curia, even as Read spins his own web of mystery. Few novelists have ever managed to so seamlessly integrate history, science, and theology as has Read. His spare style makes this all the more remarkable. There is never a whiff of anything didactic; every bit of exposition feels completely natural. And as astonishing as the “chase” is (every thriller is about a chase), it all happens within the confines of the commonplace. Not once did I remark to myself, as I have with every other book I’ve read in the genre, that some bit of action or scrap of dialogue was utterly implausible. And this is what makes Read’s book so chilling. Reading the novel one feels: Kate’s soul-rattling anguish as she cradles a dying war orphan; Uriarte’s blinding impatience with indifference to suffering; Father Luke’s struggle to evangelize the modern world; and, in the end, how much of life and history depend upon timing, good and bad.