Monday, September 16, 2013


It seemed like a good idea to finally read this thriller that begins with a priest falling to his death from the dome of St. Peter's shortly before re-visiting the basilica for the first time in 20-some years. And this novel by newspaperman William Montalbano has the other distinction of anticipating the election of a Latino pope by a decade and a half.

The church portrayed by Montalbano is a flawed, very human institution. His protagonist, former Miami cop Paul Lorenzo, is somewhat casual about his vow of chastity in his new vocation as a lay brother. The suggestion is that most churchmen are not faithful to their vows and chastity is probably an outmoded idea, anyway. Lorenzo sought refuge in an order -- never really a good motivation -- because he botched an escort for a Latin American cardinal, stole a million dollars in drug money that fell into his hands as a result, and lost his wife and daughter in a kidnapping-hostage taking when the drug gang sought revenge.

That Latin American cardinal becomes Pope Pius XIII and Lorenzo becomes a fixer for the new pope, who goes by "Tredi" for the Italian for thirteen (tredicemo). The pope himself is a target for the drug gang's revenge and thwarting their plans drives the plot.

Montalbano, who died prematurely of a heart attack before this book was published, was a prize-winning journalist and a good writer. He spent seven years as the Vatican correspondent for the Los Angeles Times after many years covering Latin America, so he knows the world he describes from firsthand experience.

But when it comes to portraying churchmen and religious life, it is clear that his firsthand experience is as an outsider. It is fine to be cynical and worldly wise about the motivations and behavior of clerics, but it fails to do justice to the genuine idealism and altruism you find among those who dedicate their lives to God and manage to maintain their integrity. It might make the reader feel in the know when Brother Paul sleeps with his on-again, off-again girlfriend -- a former nun -- but there is a whole dimension missing in this depiction of the faithful. It may be well observed that religious life is just another career for many, but for others it is truly a life of faith, and there is no hint of that in Montalbano's characters.

Even the pope, despite his penchant for working the occasional miracle, seems to keep his faith at arm's length, like the cassock he takes on and off.

Brother Paul, then, who was a royal screw-up as a policeman, husband and father, and is anything but a model religious as he gets a chance at redemption, is a hard sell for the reader's sympathy. The plot itself is an improbable mix of the by-now standard drug cartel by-play and dirty Vatican politics. The identity of the eventual papal assassin is clear from the moment he enters the story, and only someone with Lorenzo's track record for slow-wittedness would have missed it.

The climactic scene in Umbria -- I read the book on a vacation to Umbria and Rome -- is somewhat contrived and fairly low-key as a climax. I left the book at the house we rented. It's fine for the airplane or for a vacation when you're looking for some mindless entertainment.

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