Shocking Secrets of the Papacy! Not.

It’s one of those stories that just doesn’t get old: the iniquities and secrets of the Roman Catholic Church: female popes, murdered popes, a Nazi pope,laundered money, paedophilia, Mafia connections – the list just goes on and on. And don’t let’s get started on the Secret Archives buried deep beneath St Peter’s and accessible only to Dan Brown.

And how did these child-raping, Jew-hating misogynists achieve their power? They were elected in an unholy conclave behind he locked doors of the Sistine Chapel by that global force for pure evil, the Catholic Cardinals.

Or so most Christian fundamentalists and some media would like us to think. Throw in the Illuminati and the Church of Sion and Satanists and it makes for a thrilling and very lucrative story, and has spawned a popular fictional genre I can only call The School of Dan Brown.

Robert Harris is not a member of The School of Dan Brown. Nor is he a Catholic or even religious, but his latest book Conclave is an excellent and non-partisan examination of what happens at a Conclave.

It is set several years in the future, immediately after the death of a Reformist pope [Pope Francis’s name is not used but the dead pope is clearly based on him]: the protagonist is the elderly Cardinal Lomeli, Dean of the Sacred College of Cardinals, fiend of the late pope, and Vatican insider.

The business of arranging a Conclave, the oldest, most secret and, arguably, most important, election on earth is made clear and, thanks to unrestricted access granted by the Vatican, Robert Harris describes where the cardinals would stay and what they would see during the drawn-out process.

It’s not spoiler to reveal that the Catholic Church, like many major religions, is Plagued by internal rifts between the reformers and the traditionalists: then there is also the American Catholic faction, and those who would like to see a black African as the next pope.

Lomeli is amazed and dismayed when, along with the conservative Patriarch of Venice Cardinal Tredesco, The liberal Secretary of State Bellini, the powerful African Cardinal Adeyemi, and the smooth, media-savvy glamour-boy from Canada Cardinal Tremblay, he also receives votes.

This book has been compared to House of Cards with more arthritis – on the whole, Cardinals are way past retirement age in the secular world – and politics, lobbying, and the exposure of dirty secrets all have their part to play in the Conclave, just as in any other election.

Throw in an explosion, the persecution of Christians in the Middle East – which Harris calls “one of the great untold stories” – and the unexpected arrival of Vincent Benítez, Archbishop of Baghdad, a cardinal in pectore, created by the pope in secret in order to protect his identity.

A political thriller, a page-turner, an informative, impartial and even handed story, Conclave has elicited condemnation and praise from Catholic critics but is generally admired as a well-researched page-turner by almost every other reviewer.

For anyone who loves a conspiracy at the heart of which lies the Catholic Church, an evil genius manipulating and lying to mankind, hiding the truth and working an evil agenda, maybe this is not the book for you.

Robert Harris is one of the best and most factually reliable writers we have: his research is excellent and his journalism background is obvious in the manner in which he gets to the nub of whatever genre – contemporary [Archangel, Conclave, Ghost, The Fear Index], Historical [Enigma, Pompeii, Imperium, Lustrum, An Officer and a Spy, Dictator], or Alternative [Fatherland] – he is using.

Chances are, whether you are an atheist of Pope Francis himself, you will devour Conclave in one sitting. Prove me wrong.

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