Thursday 18 January 2018

Review: Fiction: The Caravaggio Conspiracy by Walter Ellis

Lilliput Press, €15, pbk
Available with free P&P on www.kennys.ie or by calling 091 709350

It is the countdown to a Papal election. Europe is poised on the brink of a violent clash of civilisations as indigenous populations resent the growing demands for parity of esteem from a Muslim minority, and resurgent Islam dreams of regaining ground lost five centuries earlier.

Unknown to the world, there is a conspiracy to fix the conclave to secure the election of a hardliner as Pope who would provoke a holy war against the Muslim world.

Even more hidden is the existence, at the heart of the Vatican, of a radical Islamic cell. With the current wave of unrest across the Muslim world and murky goings on in the Vatican, the theme is topical enough -- and Walter Ellis creates a compelling narrative.

It's out of the same stable as The Da Vinci Code, although much better written. There is the same cast of characters: the Opus Dei judge, the venal cardinals and the wily Camerlengo (the Vatican's money man) and his hired mafia killers.

The goodies are the Irish Superior-General of the Jesuits, his nephew, a former Irish army officer now an academic, and his girl-friend, who just happens to be the daughter of the commander of the Swiss Guard.

Ellis tells two stories at once, cleverly counter-pointed and interwoven.

There is the modern story of the papal election as the cardinals assemble and the conspiracies burgeon.

In parallel, there is the story of the 16th-Century painter, Caravaggio, who has stumbled on a similar plot involving Ottoman sleepers in the Vatican.

Having discovered that a senior cardinal is a practising Muslim and seen another witness murdered, he encodes the evidence in a picture, The Betrayal of Christ, which, having disappeared for centuries, was rediscovered a few years ago in a Jesuit house in Dublin.

By energetic networking and by interpreting the clues buried in the painting, Superior-General O Malley and his small band are able to unravel the modern mystery and to forestall the contemporary conspiracy. In the end, good triumphs over evil, with a finish James Bond would have been proud of.

It is a timely story, well told, as the clash of civilisations looms again and Francis Fukuyama is stood on his head, as we witness the Middle East in crisis, Christianity losing certainty and Islam becoming more assertive.

It could be the basis for a good film. At worst it might encourage a few people to go and look at the Caravaggio now in the National Gallery.

M Hayes

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