The Death of a Pope, the latest novel by Piers Paul Read, is a thriller of the first water, that is, of the finest quality. This book reminds me of the thrillers my dad and I used to read back in the “cold war” days: the books with the tightly interwoven plots, filled with suspense and double-dealing and double-talking; the kind of book that relies on great writing rather than cheap tricks or overt and graphic sex. The kind of books written by authors like LeCarre and McGinnis who were over-taken in popularity by sensationalist authors like Follett or Grisham.
Yes, The Death of a Pope is similar in quality and style to a LeCarre classic, using real events with just a soupcon of fiction to create a suspenseful “what if” scenario with catastrophic results. The book, just published by Ignatius Press, places the reader back five years ago with Pope John Paul II nearing death. The political intrigue spins around the expected conclave, getting the “right” candidate onto the papal throne, and changing the balance from an overly conservative pontiff to one more amenable to the changing times. But this is a sub-plot, incidental to the real action and message of the 215-page taut prose.
First, we have a Basque, ex-Jesuit priest, mission worker who stands trial in London for attempting to obtain a poisonous gas, a potential “weapon of mass destruction”. Juan Uriarte is an intelligent, passionate aid-worker. Add an idealistic young journalist from wealthy parents who wants to “do good” (isn’t there a saying about “the road to hell being paved by good intentions”?), a junior security agent who with terrier-like style won’t let the former priest alone and is sure he is “up to something”, and a host of other characters who are equally well-drawn by Read’s pen. My favorite character is the journalist’s uncle, Fr. Luke Scott, a priest reminiscent of Alec Guiness’ role in the film version of Chesterton’s classic character, Fr. Brown. These characters stalk through the book, linked by events which unfold slowly but surely to the ultimate cataclysmic climax.
This book is truly a thriller – a book where something may happen and the hero has to stop the devastation before it’s too late. The details of life in an African mission, of life in Rome, of life for the liberals versus the conservatives, of human life versus human death are well-described and the reader gets a real sense of “being there”. The book doesn’t bog down or pontificate or proselytize but rather teaches through the characters’ actions and words; the double-speak of one who believes he has the “truth” is mesmerizing to the characters and the reader.
There is a bit of sexual promiscuity in the book, but nothing graphic and it pertains to the story. In fact, the promiscuity is used as an illustration of the characters’ understanding (or lack thereof) of the dignity of human life, the immutability of God’s goodness, and the rightness of the teachings of the Catholic Church.
I strongly recommend this book to any adult (or mature teen) who is interested in current events, the Catholic teachings, and loves thrillers. I’m hoping The Death of a Pope will be the re-birth of the true thriller – yes, it is that good!
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This review was written as part of the Catholic book Reviewer program from The Catholic Company. Visit The Catholic Company to find more information on The Death of a Pope and to purchase your own copy of this soon-to-be thriller classic.
Read, Piers Paul -- Death of a Pope – Ignatius Press (San Francisco, CA); 2009. Hardcover, 215 pages. ISBN: 978-1-58617-295-4