Robert Harris just can’t help himself. After 282 pages of taut thriller about a lot of very old men sitting in a darkened room and putting names in a (papal) hat, he goes and throws in an unnecessary complication. I won’t name the silliness that creeps in right at the death, but believe me it is ludicrous. As a wise friend put it: ‘It’s as though a talented child had done a really good painting but has then drawn a yellow blob with a smiley face on for the sun.’ Perhaps that’s a bit strong. But the silliness is a pity, because up to then Conclave is surprisingly good: the pope has died suddenly. There is no murder, no mysterious symbols and definitely no mad self-flagellating monks marauding about – so Dan Brown fans can move on. Instead, there is to be an election: the Conclave. Harris is clever enough to know that the general reader is going to need a guide through this arcane world. And he offers one in the (suspiciously liberal*) 75-year old Cardinal Lomeli, the Dean of the Vatican. Lomeli has doubts about everything – no dogma here. His one-sided conversations with God (or prayers, as I believe the faithful call them) are quite moving. He is the diplomat who must keep everyone honest as three Cardinals jockey for position: Lomeli’s friend Bellini; the Canadian Tremblay (‘who had the advantage of seeming to be an American without the disadvantage of actually being one’); and Adeyemi, who could be the first black pope. While the voting process is undeniably interesting, it does basically involve people writing their favourite names on bits of paper interminably – an election, indeed, albeit one with whistles, bells and smells on. Some plot device is needed to derail the process, so the usual frailties come calling: financial, sexual and so on. This being set in the present day, terrorism is also a threat. And all bookies understand that the favourite often stumbles. Harris knows what he’s doing and does it well†.
*Obviously this is ill-informed prejudice on my part: the higher echelons of the Catholic church could be full of liberal cardinals for all I know
†Apart from the aforementioned silliness