by Robert Harris, Hutchinson, £20

Robert Harris’s new novel, Conclave, is set in the near future when, after the death of a pope bearing a remarkable resemblance to Pope Francis, the cardinals of the Universal Church gather in the Vatican to elect his successor.

Simply as a guide to the logistics and canonical procedures of a papal election, Conclave is outstanding. Harris, a journalist as well as a novelist, was given full access to the setting of his drama – the Sistine Chapel and the Casa Santa Marta, the Vatican guesthouse where the cardinals are immured for the duration. He has read many books, among them John Cornwell’s A Thief in the Night, and interviewed “a cardinal who participated in a conclave”.

Harris’s deceased pope, like Pope John Paul I, had a copy of Thomas à Kempis’s Imitation of Christ on his bedside table. Apt passages from Scripture punctuate the interior monologue of his protagonist, Cardinal Jacopo Lomeli. There is even an excerpt from Romano Guardini’s Meditations Before Mass, and only a few small slips: Harris seems unclear as to the difference between heresy and schism, and Vespers is not “a sacramental act”.

Cardinal Lomeli, once Secretary of State and now Dean of the College of Cardinals, has the task of organising the conclave, and of preaching to the assembled electors before the proceedings begin. He has been through a dark night of the soul: “The higher he had climbed, the further heaven had receded.”

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