41) Conclave by Robert Harris
If you’re going to read a literary thriller, you can do a lot worse than Robert Harris, in my opinion. Fatherland is top notch, of course, and I hugely enjoyed The Fear Index and, to a lesser extent, The Ghost as well. And the Roman ones – and we are back in Rome here. Conclave isn’t as good as any of those, but it is entirely disposable, readable tosh all the same. Set entirely in the Vatican City, it details the election process for the next Pope as intrigue and scandal and terrorism threatens the Catholic Church, all in the space of a few days.
It’s incredibly insubstantial, as if Harris came up with the premise, sold it to his publisher and then had to write it: you don’t really feel like he even believes in it. But it’s entertaining nonetheless, simply because of his ability to keep the pages turning and keep the narrative moving along at a good pace. He has also effectively translated what feels like a pseudo-election process (from say the UK) to the Vatican: at one point, he even describes one of the other priests as being like someone’s campaign manager. All of this makes it instantly accessible and easy to whip through.
But it’s papal intrigue by numbers: if you were drawing up a list of four main papal candidates, you’d probably have one from the Americas, one from Africa, a traditionalist (Italian) and a maverick who comes out of nowhere. Check! You’d mix in a bit of sex, a bit of deceit, and a bit of voting drama and you would stir and wait till it came to the boil. Well that’s what Harris has done here, but it never really reaches boiling point: instead it’s all a bit lukewarm and tepid, despite the odd bit that gets bubbling. One to read on the beach, and to leave on the beach….
BUY IT NOW: Conclave