By Robert Harris
From Fatherland to the Cicero Trilogy, The Ghost to Enigma, Robert Harris has hopped back and forth across time, blending literary skill with impeccable research, and rich characterisation with suspense-fuelled political intrigue. Conclave, his 10th novel, is no exception.
Set in the near future, the death of the Pope sees 118 cardinals from around the world gather at the Vatican to elect his successor – all strictly behind closed doors, of course. Our hero is Cardinal Lomeli, the man responsible for overseeing the meeting. To him, falls the responsibility of ensuring that a puff of white smoke can be sent out into the Roman air, informing those outside that a new spiritual leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics has been selected.
Harris – who is also a welcome and insightful presence on Twitter – has long been able to conjure up a fast-paced narrative. Perhaps this is down to his journalistic roots – he worked for a number of newspapers in the UK before switching to books – and in Conclave he is again able to deftly move his plot along many a twist and turn. Harris has also managed to underpin this modern-day power struggle with descriptions about how the arcane process actually works in practice. Interesting details abound, lending his work a ring of authenticity which many seek to emulate but few actually achieve.
Politics, as in much of Harris’ work, is woven deeply through Conclave’s 300 pages. Here, he deploys his insider’s knowledge of electoral and political showdowns to full effect, even if this particular election is devoid of the social media, intrusive television cameras and spin doctors that mark campaigns beyond the Vatican’s many walls. Harris, though, does not need such devices to bolster his narrative. Drama, suspense and intelligence loom large from the first sentence to the last.
Harris has won legions of fans around the world for his blend of elegant entertainment. His skills are on full display here and, with the holiday season rapidly approaching, this is one page turner surely destined to end up in many a Christmas stocking.