Pope John Paul I reigned over the Catholic Church for 33 days in 1978. The premise of this book is that he was murdered. By a shadowy group called the P1 who are, for the record, more dastardly and secretive than the dastardly and secretive P2. Thirty years later a journalist receives a list of names. An Italian man tries to kill her. So does the CIA. Someone whose name isn’t Jack Payne tries to stop them. Oh, and the Americans can’t kill Castro.
Though odd, the above paragraph makes more sense than the book (and it’s a heck of a lot shorter so you should thank me for saving you).
The Last Pope has
- the Vatican
- a pretty young woman
- a rascally, acerbic offsider for the aforementioned young woman
- a secret code
- photographs with images that can only be seen under ultra-violet light
- a list of shadowy figures
- a seduction scene
If all it took to make a great thriller was the sum of such parts then The Last Pope would have been readable. But a thriller needs more than the right ingredients. So it wasn’t. Readable that is. Reasons include:
- The writing is pedestrian (for example within three short paragraphs the same man is described as having perspiration streaming down his face, hands slippery with sweat, perspiration clouding his eyes and being in a cold sweat) (even if the original Portuguese has four different words for sweat I doubt there was a need to use them all in one page)
- The construction is bamboozling with its short chapters jumping in time from 1978 to earlier to the present and, for all I know, several periods in between. Some of these jumps are identified by chapter headings but many are not (to the point that I began to think that someone dropped the manuscript on the way to the printer and all the chapters got put back together out of order)
- Many of the characters have no names (The Italian Man, The Master, The Subject etc) but this is balanced out by the fact that those who do have names have several each. So it’s usually about as clear as mud who is talking or being referred to.
- Perhaps worst of all is that the thing doesn’t know if it wants to be a novel (i.e. fiction) or an expose (i.e. fact). In a bizarre author interview that appears at the end of the book Mr Rocha claims that it’s all true and that the character of JC (who is the assassin) (trust me that isn’t a plot spoiler) is based on the real assassin who he (Mr Rocha) has spoken with. I might be more inclined to swallow all this if the author hadn’t in the same interview also said
- Assumptions will be replaced by confirmed facts in a future edition
- He has never received a bad review (he has, I’ve read them and claiming they don’t exist is on par with me claiming the chocolate cookies I ate this morning didn’t exist because I closed my eyes )
- The reason the Catholic Church hasn’t made a fuss about this book is they know it’s true (which is absurd because the book suggests that anyone who tells the truth about all this will get a bullet to the head so I think Mr Rocha’s claims to street cred in the conspiracy community would have been improved if he said he’d been shot at and then gone into hiding)
Honestly I’d have stopped reading this book at about page 60 but it was a pick of my book club and I DNF’d the last one so felt a little obliged to finish it. Plus I have to admit to a perverse pleasure in seeing how bad it would get.
If you want a thriller set in and around the Vatican that doesn’t treat its audience like morons read God’s Spy by Juan Gomez-Jurado. Or any other book you can find.
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My rating 0.5/5
Translator: Dolores M Koch; Publisher: Penguin [This translation 2008]; ISBN: 9780141042695; Length 473 pages; Setting: All over the place, random dates between about 1971 and whenever the thing was first published.
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Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise has read the book (for the same book group). She has a different take on it and, as always, is far more polite than I am.