The only book I’ve ever read featuring a papal conclave (except one of Maurice Druon’s Accursed Kings series books, which has one as a subplot) was Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons. That novel featured a series of bizarre murders. Robert Harris is skilled enough to generate the same level of suspense through secrets and activities that are much more likely.
As Dean of the College of Cardinals, it is Cardinal Lomeli’s job to conduct the conclave after the death of the Pope. Not only is Lomeli sincerely grieved at the Pope’s death, but he is also dedicated to doing his job well. He thinks the front-runners for the office will be Cardinal Tremblay, the Canadian Camerlengo; Cardinal Bellini, the Secretary of State; Adeyemi, the African Cardinal Major Penitentiary; and Cardinal Tedesco, the Patriarch of Venice.
Just before the cardinals are sequestered, a new cardinal appears, Vincent Benítez, newly appointed Archbishop of Baghdad. No one knows about the new appointment, but his credentials seem to be in order, and his appointment was kept secret because of the vulnerability of a Catholic cardinal in Iraq.
Another problem Archbishop Wozniak reports is that Cardinal Tremblay met with the late Pope just before the Pope died. Cardinal Wozniak tells Cardinal Lomeli the Pope confided to him that he had asked Cardinal Tremblay to resign from all his offices. Tremblay denies that this conversation took place and implies that the Pope was becoming unstable.
The suspense mounts as each vote fails to choose a candidate and secrets are revealed. Lomeli is dismayed to find himself becoming a viable candidate as others fall out of the running. He also finds indications that the late Pope was putting things in motion, months before his death, to affect the election.
Again, Harris has written a suspenseful and deeply interesting novel. The characters seem convincing—Cardinal Lomeli is extremely likable and all demonstrate human foibles without being caricatures. The ending is somewhat unbelievable, and although it is not really predictable, I was able to guess at something similar. That is a small caveat, though. All in all, Robert Harris is rapidly becoming one of my favorite genre writers.