Choosing a pope is messy, human work

If you're going to be traveling home after the holidays and you stop in the airport bookstore looking for something to read, you could do a lot worse than Robert Harris's new novel Conclave. It feels like a slight read, a novella that was blown out to fit into a novel — I thought I'd been sent a large print edition when I first opened Conclave and saw the huge font size — but it's the perfect length for a plane ride and it'll keep you turning pages through even the worst turbulence.

Conclave doesn't carry the emotional weight (Fatherland is so good) or the weirdness (Archangel is a deeply bizarre thriller) of Harris's earlier work, but it does enjoy a benefit that some of Harris's other thrillers (Pompeii, for example) enjoy: meticulous research. The book takes place in the weeks following the death of a Francis-like reform Pope, and it takes you inside the papal conclave through which bishops select the next pope. Harris rightfully makes the ceremony the central figure in the book. The social constructs built around the selection of a pope is fascinating stuff, combining the gaudy ritual of mass and the petty squabbles of office politics.

As the congress of over one hundred cardinals struggle to select their next leader, the protagonist of Conclave, Cardinal Lomeli, slowly unravels the mystery surrounding the deceased pope's death. It's a thriller starring an old man who isn't entirely sure he's starring in a thriller, and Lomeli makes for a terrific reluctant detective.

Though the structure and the rhythm of Conclave is note-perfect — Harris is nothing if not a brilliant conductor of thrillers — the final twist is clear as soon as Harris hints at it the first time, and the twist is handled with none of the care and precision that Harris slathers upon the rest of Conclave's proceedings. It's a sour bit of thoughtlessness to top off the richness and care of the 200 pages before it.

I read Conclave entirely on one flight, and it was just about the ideal plane-read experience: a fascinating world, relayed clearly, with the engine of a zippy genre plot to push things along. If you're fascinated with the ritual and ceremony of the Catholic Church, this book will feel like a peek behind the gilt-edged curtain.