Book Review: The Death of a Pope

Out today from Ignatius Press is The Death of a Pope, a new novel by Piers Paul Read, a mainstream novelist (his survival novel Alive about a rugby team whose plane crashes in the Andes topped the New York Times bestseller list when it came out 25 years ago, and was later made into a film) who has also written both fiction and nonfiction on Catholic themes. He wrote a popular history of the templars a few years back, and On the Third Day, a thriller about the discovery in modern Israel of a crucified skeleton that some allege to be proof that Christ did not rise from the dead.

I had not read any of Read’s previous books, but when Ignatius emailed me and offered me a review copy, the premise of the novel sounded interesting and I could not resist the lure of a free book. However, I did not initially expect much of it, my idea of modern “Catholic thrillers” having been formed by the likes of Pierced By A Sword, whose prose style treads that delicate line between incompetent and downright laughable.

However, I need not have feared. Read’s prose is deft and indeed literary, though the modern device of using present tense narrative to convey immediacy is not necessarily my cup of tea. Those inclined to literary snobbery will not find themselves holding their noses as they read this novel by any stretch. The less pretentious reader will enjoy the fast-paced plot, which whisks him from a terrorist trial in London, to the refugee camps of Uganda, the chemistry labs of Cairo and at last to the 2005 papal conclave.

Juan Uriarte is an former Jesuit, who left the priesthood 20 years before in order to join the FMLN guerrilla army and fight the El Salvadoran government. Now he works for Misericordia International, a Catholic charitable organization which among its other work is helping to provide medical aide to refugees in Sudan and Uganda. We first meet him, however, in a British court, where he stands accused of having contacted members of the Basque ETA and the IRA with an eye to purchasing sarin nerve gas. The Crown alleges that he was doing this with an eye towards some terrorist attack. Uriarte claims that he never intended to use it against other humans, but rather against the horses and camels of the Sudanese militias who are slaughtering the refugees his organization is trying to help.

The ex-priest manages to escape conviction because the jury does not consider it beyond a reasonable doubt that he had terrorist intent, and so begins an increasingly fast paced search for the truth about Uriarte’s intentions, as the Polish-English Mi5 agent who originally brought him in and a female reporter who finds herself attracted to Uriarte’s passion for those suffering in the world both seek to understand what is really going on. Along the way we meet the reporter’s uncle, a traditionalist English priest with friends in Rome; and a papabile Dutch cardinal whose one great fear is that his brief and unsuccessful pass at a fellow seminarian will be revealed to a media already ravening after the clergy abuse scandals that had rocked the US and Europe.

This is clearly an insider view of Catholicism, not the sort of outsider sensationalism so often found in movies and thrillers. Read’s characters have the strengths and weaknesses of their types. Though I’d certainly take Read as being more on the traditional (or at least orthodox) side of the spectrum, his traditional Catholics are not saints, nor his progressive Catholics devils.

One of the things I found both interesting and realistic about the book is that while the thriller plot itself is brought to a close, and disaster averted, none of the characters actually have a fully accurate understanding of what’s going on. They successfully uncover and thwart the plot despite some basic misunderstandings in their theories.

The Death of a Pope is an enjoyable and fast-paced read. If you’re looking for a fun summer read, with a Catholic backdrop, you could do far worse. For my own part, I think I’ll be looking up a few of Read’s other novels.

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