9780451493446_p0_v1_s192x300  In Conclave, Robert Harris tears away the illusion of the Pope’s selection as the sacred inspiration of holy men and exposes the political machinations and corruption behind the scenes.  Although he dots the scenes with familiar Latin invocations and old-fashioned prayers, the inside debates and secret maneuvering are worthy of a political party convention.

Four candidates vie for the top job in the church: Tremblay, a Canadian who knows how to spin the media; Adeyemi, a charismatic Nigerian conservative; Tedesco, an archconservative Italian from the old school of Latin Masses; and Aldo Bellini, an intellectual Italian who would continue the Church’s reform.  Cardinal Lomeli, the well-meaning Dean of the College of Cardinals, manages his colleagues and the vote, as behind the scenes revelations threaten the process.

As the plot slowly builds to what seems an inevitable conclusion – the naming of an obscure third world cardinal who miraculously appears almost too late for the closed meeting – Harris turns the plot upside down.  Like the reference Harris makes to the painting of Peter, the first Pope, who hangs feet up on the cross, the papacy flips head over heals.  The last impenetrable glass ceiling is cracked but almost no one knows.

I read Conclave in one night – a thriller without a murder.

The Fear Index

Although the IBM computer, Watson, made humorous mistakes when competing with two humans on the television show Jeopardy, Watson still won the game.  In Robert Harris’ mystery thriller, The Fear Index, the stakes are higher, and who has the real intelligence is questionable.

Dr. Alan Hoffmann has traded up from his job as a physicist working on creating artificial intelligence to organize the data from the Large Hadron Collider to owning a hedge fund company that uses algorithms based on fear to predict market values that “thrive on panic.”  It was a good move; he is now worth billions.

Hoffmann’s story opens with a burglary at his entry-proof mansion, and accelerates quickly into a nightmare of alienating his wife, losing control of his company, and perhaps his mind.  As he faces each new fear, he frantically tries to uncover if he has been the mad man behind them, or if the computer program he created is the mastermind.

“Fear of the intruder in the night. Fear of assault and violation. Fear of illness. Fear of madness. Fear of loneliness. Fear of being trapped in a burning building…”

The recent financial crisis across the world markets becomes an important character, with Harris referencing real events.  But more than the compelling thrill of the action, Harris offers a cautionary commentary on the role of corporations and the evolution of computers –  turning over decision-making to the “cloud” could be dangerous.

The action is fast and furious; I read the book in one sitting.