Rocha, Luis Miguel. The Last Pope. Translated by Dolores M. Koch. G. P. Putnam’s Sons. August 2008. c.304p. ISBN 978-0-399-15489-8. $24.95 Fiction.
Portuguese writer Rocha centers his thriller on the unexpected death of Pope John Paul I on September 29, 1978, only 33 days into his papacy. The author, who claims to have met the man who killed the pope (identified only as J.C.), ties the conspiracy to the clandestine Masonic lodge Propaganda Due (P2) and its grand master, Licio Gelli. Like Gelli, many of Rocha’s characters are historical figures, including most of those implicated in Vatican scandals of the time—American archbishop Paul Marcinkus, chairman of the Institute for Religious Works (the Vatican bank), the Mafia banker Michele Sidona, and P2 member Roberto Calvi (aka God’s Banker) of the Banco Ambrosiano, found hanging from the Blackfriars Bridge in London in 1982. The pope’s secretary of state, Cardinal Jean-Marie Villot, himself a Mason, an excommunicable offense, is also implicated in the crime. Before the novel’s unsatisfactory conclusion (and the epilog supposedly written by the man who killed the pope), P2 will control the London office of the CIA and have a hand in most of the other conspiracies of the time. Unbelievable action (the fictionalized contemporary elements of this tale), shallow characterization, and banal narration limit the effectiveness of this Da Vinci Code wannabe. The author’s annoying habit of trying to create suspense by referring to characters only as “this man, the fat man, the old man, the speaker, the subject, the pursuer, the assistant, the servant” adds to the confusion. For conspiracy addicts only.