The Death of a Pope — A Novel by Piers Paul Read. Ignatius Press (San Francisco, 2009) 215 pp., $21.95.
Ever since the horrific events of Sept. 11, 2001, we have realized the fear that no stage is too big for terrorist activities. Piers Paul Read capitalizes on this fear in his church thriller, The Death of a Pope.
Read sets the stage admirably, weaving an international tapestry of cultures, religions and geopolitical issues together, ebbing and flowing against each other. The terminal illness of Pope John Paul II becomes a catalyst to a convergence of these issues and points to the possibility of a terrific, terrifying event.
The plot and the motivations of the involved parties are entirely plausible. Read does a good job of explaining the different factions, both inside the church and out, illuminating their motives and fears with expert research and analysis.
Yet this reader was never fully engaged in the story, observing the one-dimensional characters from a distance instead of from within. It was difficult to identify with the protagonists and harder still to like them and believe in their passions.
Perhaps this distance started at the beginning. Instead of engaging the reader with a tension-filled, secretive meeting between suspects and undercover operatives that culminates in a surprising arrest, the novel starts with long passages of court proceedings and summaries of characters that are more fitting for a book proposal than the finished product.
A minor but troubling point: This book was edited with style elements perhaps common in England but confusing to American readers, such as single quote marks for dialogue and a few alternate spellings. A short note in the preface of the next edition would clarify matters for the reader.
Still, the story leaves a lasting, intense impression that in the right situation, the religious fervor underneath some geopolitical issues could erupt and produce a terrible event. For this enhanced worldview and the thrilling ride on a roller coaster named "What if …," we owe the author our gratitude.
Fenoglio is a CPA award-winning columnist for the Tennessee Register, Nashville’s diocesan newspaper.