A note from Robert Harris at the start of Conclave states that any resemblance between the late pope featured in the author's 11th novel and the current incumbent of that office is purely superficial.
That feels a little disingenuous, considering that the pontiff found dead in the opening chapter is discovered in the Casa Santa Marta, the hostel built by John Paul II to house cardinals during any future election. The Pope “had stayed [there] as a cardinal before the Conclave that elected him and had never moved out: one look at the luxurious apartment to which he was entitled . . . had been enough to send him running.” So far, so Franciscan.
As someone fascinated by all things political, I looked forward to learning more about an election that has always been cloaked in secrecy, expecting great things from an author whose works, from Hitler reimaginings to Blair reinterpretations to Cicero rediscoveries, has always been steeped in the art of the possible.
The clandestine nature of a Papal vote offers the novelist a degree of imaginative freedom as there are no visible campaigns, no political conventions, no Twitter wars and no television cameras. No one is supposed to want the job, but once you have it, it’s yours for life – unless you’re German, of course, in which case you can cut and run when the scandals get too much.
So it's a shame that Conclave, while an entertaining read, proves far less insightful than it might have been. The central character, Cardinal Lomeli, is a decent, thoughtful man whose job it is to shepherd 118 ruthless narcissists towards a decision while keeping the traditionalists away from the progressives and stopping a full scale holy war from breaking out over the puttanesca.
The candidates themselves (four Papabiles are presented early on) are each hiding secrets whose disclosure would likely cost them the election. But the secrets prove so tame compared with the antics of some of their real -life counterparts that one is left thinking, well I've heard worse, and wondering why they're so mercilessly ejected off the ballot.
Perhaps it's because their villainy is so rather mundane that Conclave fails to engage. It's not unreasonable to assume that many cardinals would like to become pope, but as each one slips from grace, the whole thing starts to become a little daft.
Lomeli, a sort of Hercule Poirot in a zucchetto, exposes them one by one, leaving a series of shattered figures weeping in a corner until it seems that with the crowds in St Peter’s Square crying out for a spiritual leader, they will end up having to elect the man they least despise rather than the one they most admire.
On the plus side, Harris is adept at slipping fascinating details seamlessly into the text. I didn’t know, for example, that the black simar worn by cardinals in public has 33 red buttons, one for each year of Christ’s life, or the reasons why the papal thrones were taken away. (Too gaudy, if you can believe it.)
There are plenty of gossipy titbits about the election of popes, from John XXIII to Francis, which suggests that the unnamed “informers” credited in the acknowledgements have been happy to spill some pretty substantial beans.
A thoughtful novel about the intellectual battles that should take place at the heart of a conclave would be a fine thing to read. This, however, is not it. Unconcerned with religious debate or philosophical argument, Conclave quickly descends into high camp.
This is never more so than when Lomeli breaks into the late pope's bedroom to dismantle his bed (don't ask) before finding four boxes of documents hidden in the woodwork that contain even more unsavoury revelations. By now, the book most closely recalls Dan Brown's Angels and Demons, which pulled off the juxtaposition of politics with religion rather better.
And yet, for all its faults, there’s no denying that the novel is a page-turner. The action moves at a breakneck pace and, with each passing ballot, the reader is keen to discover who’s up and who’s down. The twists keep coming, some visible from a mile away, some genuine surprises, but it’s the final one, saved for the closing pages, that stretches credibility to breaking point.
To say any more would be to spoil it, but when I got there I sat up and roared ‘Oh come on!’ so loudly that my dog, snoozing at the time, took fright and ran from the room into the garden, refusing to return for a good half hour.
Robert Harris is a terrific writer. Fatherland has become something of a modern classic, while The Ghost skewered Tony Blair with both intelligence and dark humour. Conclave is fun but ultimately proves so silly that it just can't stand comparison with his earlier work.
There’s a great novel waiting to be written about a papal election – but for now, I’m afraid there’s only black smoke blowing through the literary chimney.
John Boyne’s most recent work is the short story collection ‘Beneath the Earth’, published by Doubleday.