REVIEW: Robert Harris – Conclave

I am minded of a witty review back in the day by Dorothy Parker, who wrote of a book that it should not be put down lightly; it should be hurled with great force.

A scan of the acknowledgments at the back of the novel about a conclave in which a Dean of the College of Cardinals must do some sleuthing (cardinals are bumped off… the Chair of Peter, not bumped off…) will tell you a great deal about what is between the covers.   Would that I had read those acknowledgements before I turned to the opening page.

It is, mercifully, a fast read.  It deals with some current controversies.  I detest spoilers, so I won’t give you anything substantive.  There are absurdities in the plot which would allow canonists to pen some great posts about the validity of the conclave and, therefore, the election of the predictable surprise “Pope” at the end.  There are some ludicrous shots at tradition especially through its personification in unlikeable cardinals.  And there is this…

Even when I detest a book I hate spoilers. There are a few clever moments, mind you, but they in no way make up for this thing’s gross inadequacies and cheap shots.

Do yourselves a favor. Keep moving when you run across it… unless you can find a used copy in the cart outside the store which you could give to someone you don’t like.


And, as I contemplate dropping it into a canal… jail for the author?   If I were Doge and he wrote that in my most serene republic…

It’s final resting place…

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Prayerful says:

    Robert Harris has an efficient and readable style. I have a few of his historical novels, Some Catholic magazines gave it friendly notices, but this slovenly attack on Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre suggest it should be left on the shelf. I personally could not bin a book whatever the topic. I just would never read it. Did some ‘New Joy’ leaning Catholic prompt this or was something garbled through over quick reading on the topic? It would just be too annoying to read. Thanks for the heads up Fr. A book to avoid.

  2. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    Maybe I’m not subtle enough reading between British lines, or maybe I don’t have enough of a sense of Fr. Lucie-Smith (probably – easily! – both), but his recent Catholic Herald interview with Mr. Harris did not prepare me for this – but, glad to learn it, though too bad it is so! (Harris is one of those authors I’m always meaning to catch up on trying – I enjoyed the Fatherland film, but still haven’t tried the novel, haven’t even tried the Enigma film yet… ah, well…)

  3. un-ionized says:

    Is this from the author himself or is this from a character? There is a big difference.

  4. Suudy says:

    I very much enjoyed his Imperium series. And Pompeii was fun as well. The books were fun and I think a great way to rouse interest in the end of the Roman republic. But on the other hand, he is a bit … free … with his characters and history. I guess I’m disappointed, but not surprised, that he’d create a novel that wasn’t friendly to the Church.

  5. KAS says:

    I got several of his books used, very very cheaply, after seeing that Fr. Z was reading his work–luckily not this novel. Glad to see others liked the Roman novels– I hope the history isn’t too warped.

    If his view of a conclave is so warped, is there any hope that his other novels will be less badly warped?

  6. I’ve enjoyed his other books, which gave me good hopes for this one.


  7. mike cliffson says:

    No crazed blond monks ?

  8. Someone please be the Garrigue says:

    That green thing with the ciggiebuts on top. Is that a Vatican Post pillar box?

  9. stuart reiss says:

    The master of Papal liturgical ceremonies is Archbishop Mandorf…..Harris probably reads Your Reverence’s blog.

  10. Semper Gumby says:

    Thanks for the book review Fr. Z, I was wondering if “Conclave” was worth the read.

    For what it’s worth, and maybe this is not news, Dan Brown’s next book is due out in Sep. 2017 titled “Origin.” It will probably be Gnostic, anti-Catholic, ridiculous, and a bestseller.

  11. Geoffrey says:

    While I am no apologist for the late archbishop, I do not think he met the definition of a “heretic”. Disobedient and rebellious would be more appropriate terms.

    I am currently reading Windswept House, which seems intent on portraying Lefebvre as a “persecuted” and saintly martyr. Apparently there is nonsense on both sides.

  12. jaykay says:

    By coincidence, Amazon Kindle Store was recommending this book to me earlier today. I have to say… I wasn’t tempted, because I thought straightaway that he just wouldn’t have the background to do a decent job, and a brief perusal on the ‘look inside’ option confirmed this.

    A pity, because I really liked his Roman novels (also Enigma & Fatherland) and I thought his Dreyfus one was good. But yes, he seems to be straying outside his comfort zone here, perhaps trying to write another “Ghost”, and it just doesn’t work.

  13. Ann Malley says:

    “…Disobedient and rebellious would be more appropriate terms.”

    On to something and subjected to being marginalized, slandered, and hushed up as a result is more accurate. But disinformation is big business. And while many will not actually read the details as they appear in real life, and in context of the times in which they occurred, they will glob onto a fictional account that is “entertaining” and imbibe all as if it were partly true. Oh, my.

    I wonder where others may fall out when faced with the potential slur of “disobedient” or “rebellious” when those in positions of power misuse authority and subsequently seek to cover it up.

    Lines are swiftly and definitively being drawn even now.

  14. I really need to get that novel written. I have secret vampire assassin squads, stuff with the Mossad, accurate descriptions of Rome….

  15. JGavin says:

    Do you think Father, that the Doges would have “shown him the time”?

    When in Venice, we were told a common expression was” I will show you the time”. A threat of punishment. This referred to the fact that the condemned’s last view on this earth was the Clock in St Mark’s Square. It is also why Venetians will not walk between the two pillars. This is where the condemned met their fate.
    Based on your review, I will not waist my time or Money on this one.

  16. Supertradmum says:


    I have nine murder mysteries written and another one half….

    Wait til these come out! Much better than my three novels, as I have a sense for the murder genre….

  17. Gregg the Obscure says:

    Vampires that go after regular folks or “ordinary” assassins who target vampires? Or vampires who assassinate other vampires? Many options there. I bet the thought was expressed more clearly in the original Latin. ;-)

    [I, too, am obscure.]

  18. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    Gregg the Obscure,

    I was wondering about that tantalizing phrase, too: I’ll try not to let it set me climbing the walls upside down…

  19. Grant M says:

    I don’t know this Robert Harris but he seems to be some sort of extreme sede-vacantist for whom even the 1962 Missal of anti-pope Roncalli is a modernist masonic production, and ergo all those who advocate its use must be heretics. I too immediately bin all sede publications that come my way…

    [No no no. Harris is not a sedevacantist. He isn’t Catholic in any flavor. Alas, he fell in with the wrong crowd for this book. Liberals.]

  20. tioedong says:

    This book is why I usually read the beginning and then the ending before I decide reading the whole thing is worth my time. I don’t know if he got the theology right, but his medical “rabbit out of a hat” climax is pure bunk.

  21. JonPatrick says:

    I’ll pass on this book but would definitely buy anything by Fr. Z or Supertradmum!

  22. Filipino Catholic says:

    “For what it’s worth, and maybe this is not news, Dan Brown’s next book is due out in Sep. 2017 titled “Origin.” It will probably be Gnostic, anti-Catholic, ridiculous, and a bestseller.” — Semper Gumby

    Well at least Robert Langdon is no longer making appearances from what I know. When the day comes that Fr. Z is elected pope, then perhaps the Index of Forbidden Books will make a comeback at long last.

  23. Venerator Sti Lot says:


    Do you have one or more continuing sleuths? (Not necessary, but often enjoyable!)

  24. Semper Gumby says:

    Filipino Catholic: That is interesting, if Robert Langdon is not the main character in Dan Brown’s next novel. Maybe Dan Brown will write a “non-fiction” book like Michael Baigent’s “Holy Blood Holy Grail.” In fact, Brown’s “DaVinci Code” is based on Baigent’s “Holy Blood Holy Grail.” Or Dan Brown could write a novel based on Graham Hancock’s “lost civilization” books. Hancock, like Brown and Baigent, also presents his pet theories as “non-fiction.” Funny how their pet theories tend to be Gnostic and anti-Catholic.

    Here’s last month’s press release about Brown’s “Origin”:

    “In keeping with his trademark style, Brown interweaves codes, science, religion, history, art and architecture into this new novel. Origin thrusts Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon into the dangerous intersection of humankind’s two most enduring questions, and the earth-shaking discovery that will answer them.”

    Ok. A few week’s ago I was in an airport and not in a reading mood, so I spent a couple hours trying to guess the plot of “Origin.” Researching and speculating was amusing, and passed the time. For what it’s worth, here’s my summarized and hopefully smoothed-out notes, and yep, this is going to be a little odd.

    -Dan Brown and his publisher have a habit of dropping clues before releasing a book. That term “earth-shaking” in the press release could refer to Graham Hancock’s pet theory that a meteor struck the earth around 10500 BC, ended the Ice Age, and destroyed the original civilization that invented religion, writing, astrology etc. Graham Hancock is a Gnostic. So is Dan Brown. Perhaps they’re drinking buddies.

    -Speaking of Gnostics, there was an article on an Indian website that Brown would make his first trip to India in 2014. Brown would be attending a book fair. Perhaps Brown would also be interested in researching the “Jesus was in India and learned from a guru” theory. Perhaps Brown would research the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas also.

    -Dan Brown is interested in art. If Brown is interested in Hancock’s “lost civilization” theory, he might write something, skewed of course, about the origins of art. Brown could be interested in the Lascaux Cave art, which has a primitive bull that Hancock says is actually a star chart of the Pleiades. Brown could be interested in the cave art of the Pyrennes, such as the “Hands of Gargas.”

    -If Brown’s “Origin” has to do with the origins of civilization, religion, art etc., then Brown is likely to take an interest in Gobekli Tepe. Gobekli Tepe is an archaeological site in south-eastern Turkey dating to about 10000 BC. All sorts of wild theories about this megalithic structure, and it’s Stela 43, abound.

    -Brown’s book is due out in September 2017. At least one of Brown’s books, and I forget which, was released on a date that had astrological or numerological significance. Our Lady of Fatima’s 100th anniversary is Oct. 2017. Perhaps Brown will take another swipe at Our Lady. Dan Brown would have to find a way to work Portugal into “Origin.” Here’s a wild guess. Brown likes architecture and chapels. The chapel of Henry the Navigator is in Portugal: Nosse Senhora de Guadalupe. The author Baigent has noted the ceiling architecture and believes the stars are of astrological significance. Henry the Navigator sent the first European ships south from Portugal along the west coast of Africa, and Vasco de Gama then reached India. If Brown, as noted above, sends Jesus to India, then Brown may also send the Apostle Paul to Spain/Portugal. A lot of opportunity here for Brown to write anti-Church and anti-Western themes.

    -One last piece of guessing. The “intersection” in the press piece may refer to ley lines. Hancock has a lot of fun with ley lines in his books. Also, Brown might someday write about Egypt, the alignments of the Sphinx and the Pyramid “airshafts,” and the Nag Hammadi codices and Hermeticism. I have no idea if he’ll get to that in “Origin.”

    Anyway, it was fun to research and speculate on this topic, but it must have been a chore to read this comment. Thanks.

    Bottom line: Brown, Hancock, Baigent and dozens of others will continue to sow the seeds of doubt and Gnosticism. And many of their readers will unfortunately accept their theories and “facts” as true.

    A year after the “DaVinci Code” was published, Carl Olson and Sandra Mieles wrote the “DaVinci Hoax,” after they noticed that many Catholics they knew or met were confused or upset by Brown’s book. My guess is Olson and Mieles are already tinkering away in their workshop, preparing a triumphant counterblast against “Origin”.

  25. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    Semper Gumby,

    What wild things you know! Is Hancock indebted to Madame Blavatsky and Velikovsky on ‘pre-‘ (and ‘lost’) ‘history’? Do you take the “two most enduring questions” to concern ‘Origin’ and ‘Destiny’ (rather than, say, Why is there something rather than nothing, & why are things as they are rather than otherwise?)? Would this involves riffs on or rip-offs of Arthur C. Clarke?

  26. Lucas Whittaker says:

    Well, if you take the advice of C.S. Lewis, that for every new book that you read, you then read two old books, you can be fairly certain to be less dissapointed by the classic books that you might choose. The photos of that book on the rubbish bin made me laugh. Thank you for that.

  27. Filipino Catholic says:

    @Semper Gumby Alas! From what you’ve written up I fear Langdon is going to be the lead again, and here I had thought four books’ worth of shenanigans was already enough mayhem for one symbologist to deal with. A fifth one seems a bit much already considering how Brown is apparently going for the grand effect here.

    It wouldn’t be so bad if Brown didn’t keep putting that infernal disclaimer of his that many of the plot points are factual/accurately based on real life, or if there was only one of him. Unfortunately there are more books of his kind than I have space to burn, such as a certain novel where the Catholic Church is described as the successor to ancient sun worship, or another where some holy relics of ours turn out to be something out of science fiction instead, among others.

    To all future aspirants to the Throne of Stone, I petition earnestly: Bring back the Index!

  28. Pingback: SATURDAY EDITION | Big Pulpit

  29. Pastor in Valle says:

    Sure, it isn’t the Catholic Herald’s version of a conclave, nor what we would expect to happen in reality. But I have to admit that I’m gripped by the story. Not got to the end yet, but if I change my mind about its quality, I’ll come back and eat my words in another post. Hugely enjoying it so far.

  30. Semper Gumby says:

    Venerator: There are similarities between Blavatsky and Hancock. Both believe, or at a minimum write favorably about, Inner Divinity, reincarnation, “secret knowledge of the ancients”, an Atlantis-type event resulting in a lost civilization, and a cyclic view of history (for Graham he’s a fan of the Mayan calendar).

    As for Velikovsky, not so much. It seems that Velikovsky’s “wandering planets” would interfere with Graham’s astral alignments and meteor strike. Both of them heavily distort the chronology of ancient Egypt, but in different ways and for different purposes.

    My knowledge of Clarke is near non-existent. However, I am interested to hear what you have to say on Clarke. Dan Brown likes to add a science/technology angle to his books.

  31. Semper Gumby says:

    Filipino Catholic: Good point about Dan Brown’s “infernal disclaimers.”

    Dan Brown has sold over 200 million books and there are several popular movies. “Origin” might popularize Graham Hancock’s pseudo-science and high-octane Gnosticism. (Hancock writes approvingly of the Serpent in the Garden of Eden, because the Serpent helped mankind to obtain “gnosis,” or hidden knowledge of the gods and Inner Divinity). Hopefully, my little theory about Brown’s next novel is wrong.

  32. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    Filipino Catholic says, “A fifth one seems a bit much” – ah, but maybe he’s sketching some sort of giant literary “history, art and architecture”-related pentagram! (rather like in that curious film, “Sherlock Holmes”(2009) with Robert Downey, if I remember correctly…?).

    Semper Gumby,

    Alas, I don’t know much Clarke, yet, myself – I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey – and years later read some little article that let me know what it was all about! – and then, on reading C.S. Lewis’s recommendation, read Childhood’s End (which I did enjoy in various ways) – in both he is very bold about imagining human origins and destinies on a cosmic scale (in, as far as I recall, alternate accounts!).

  33. Grant M says:

    So basically Harris wouldn’t know a heretic even if he was mugged in a dark alley by Arius, Zwingli, Timothy the Cat and the entire robber council of Ephesus.

  34. Filipino Catholic says:

    @Semper Gumby ‘Tis a mighty tide we struggle against, with so many works of fiction hurling diatribes and slanders and calumnies and libels against Christianity, all in the name of “freethinking” and “enlightenment” and “rationality” and all these other things that exalt the human intellect above all else. At what point do we cease our siege mentality and switch from defense to offense?

    Of course the advocatus diaboli in me says that going on the offensive will step on some very learned toes and repel prospective catechumens on the charge that “Christianity is a religion of closemindedness”. Prudence and caution may be necessary.

    @VSL If so, yet again Dan Brown’s fondness for the Golden Ratio and the supposed symbol of the Pythagoreans shows. We need to reclaim our symbols — the pentagram is ours (5 points = Five Wounds), as is the Eye of Providence, and the Cross of St. Peter.

    (P.S. Father Z is right to cast that book into the rubbish heap! I read a few spoilers and… [REDACTED due to the Boanerges-level vehemence of language needed to repudiate the climax].)

  35. Semper Gumby says:

    Venerator: I also did not fully understand Clarke’s 2001. Admittedly, the only sci-fi book on my shelves is Michael O’Brien’s Voyage to Alpha Centauri.

    Your mention of “destinies” reminds me of something called “Transhumanism.” Over the last couple years there have been occasional news reports (if I recall, in places like the LA Times, Wired magazine, and the Washington Post) of several billionaires funding research into a wonder drug that greatly prolongs life. If I recall this has to do with fiddling with DNA to switch off certain aging processes. Well, no opportunity for disaster there. One article said that some wealthy tech genius wants to upload his “consciousness” into a computer. This stuff would no doubt interest Dan Brown. Personally, I could think of better things to do with a billion dollars. That’s alot of Birra Nursia.

    p.s. That mention of “intersection” in the Origin press release maybe refers to lines of latitude and longitude.

    p.p.s. Fr. Z wrote in red above: “I, too, am obscure.” *chuckle*

  36. Semper Gumby says:

    Filipino Catholic wrote: “‘Tis a mighty tide…” Indeed. May I suggest one need not have a siege mentality? Rather, situational awareness. As you know, Scripture, Pius XI’s Mit Brennender Sorge, the Sacraments, etc., provide guidance, fortitude, and hope for our current serious predicament. (Ok, I can’t resist: Go to Confession!)

    Perhaps, as you suggest in your last sentence, a prudent selectivity is in order. Last week at The Catholic Gentleman, there was an article by a man who moved his family to a small town in Oklahoma next to Clear Creek Monastery. He and his wife selected a place to live for the spiritual, material, and educational well-being of his family.

    As for Catholic fiction, I heard Raymond Arroyo and Taylor Marshall have entered the field with new books. Michael O’Brien’s non-fiction A Landscape With Dragons is also worth the read.

    Ora et labora.

  37. jaykay says:

    Semper Gumby: “oooh, my brain hurts!” :)

    Seriously, we all remember the ferment back 10 years ago about Brown’s pirated, ill-digested, fantasies from so many loonies – 30 pieces of silver has he indeed collected. But who even cares anymore? I honestly think his latest offerings, much like those of a small child showing its potty efforts to adoring adults, will be flushed away from the collective consciousness, such as it is, just like the same child’s productions. He really is well past his sell-by date and is now a complete bore. Those who have encouraged him are fools. I think it’ll bomb.

  38. Semper Gumby says:

    jaykay wrote: “I think it’ll bomb.” That would be great. And as I stated above: “Hopefully, my little theory about Brown’s next novel is wrong.” I share your disdain for Brown’s books. But, as I noted above: “Dan Brown has sold over 200 million books and there are several popular movies.”

    I’m not a fan of the Huffington Post, however on June 12, 2013, Gary Jansen posted an article “9 Reasons Why Dan Brown is One of the Most Important (Living) Authors.” Certainly, Jansen’s headline and pro-Brown analysis is just opinion, but let’s take a look at his list.

    1. Spotlight on Dante. (but jaykay, Dante through the eyes of Dan Brown).
    2. Cultural Literacy. (a distorted and anti-Catholic literacy actually).
    3. Global Awareness. (Brown thinks the planet has too many people…etc.)
    4. Inspiration for Aspiring Writers. (Jansen wants us to feel sympathy for the young and “struggling” Dan Brown. However, jaykay, take a look at the authors Dan Brown has influenced. For example, Tom Knox since 2009 has published five novels, is a better writer by far than Brown, his Gnosticism and anti-Catholicism are subtler, and Knox, to boost sales, adds gratuitous sex and violence.)

    Jansen praises Brown for increasing tourism in Florence, Washington DC etc. We know what the quality of a Dan Brown tour of Venice would be. Jansen praises Brown for boosting the publishing industry and the economy, as Dan Brown computer games, children’s books etc. are in the works. Finally, reason #9 for Jansen is that Brown’s books promote a symbolic view of the world. No need to point out the problem there.

    By the way, according to USAToday, Brown’s last book “Inferno” was the #1 book in the US for 2013. This was the third time Brown had the #1 book for the year in the US. Library copies and personal loaning, of course, increase readership beyond the sales numbers of over 200 million worldwide sales. Hope this helps.

  39. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    Filipino Catholic,

    “We need to reclaim our symbols — the pentagram is ours (5 points = Five Wounds), as is the Eye of Providence, and the Cross of St. Peter.” Yes, well said!

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