By: Juan Gomez-Jurado
Okay, I admit, I picked this up on a whim. I was strolling along the bargain section of the bookstore looking for a fantastic read (picked up Lax’s The Spanish Bow for only $5.99 in hardcover in that section and Cohen’s Jane Austen in Scarsville: or Love, Death and the SATs was an enjoyable read). I saw God’s Spy and read the premise; it seemed interesting enough. Murder in Rome, crazy psychopath on the loose, intrigue in the Vatican. I thought, Why not? So I picked it up. Kinda wished I didn’t.
The story takes place in Rome shortly after Pope John Paul II passes away. Rome is busy with Catholics and reporters coming into the city to pay their final respects. At the same time there’s a killer on the loose, killing prominent cardinals just as the conclave is about the begin. Police inspector Paola Dicanti is sent to investigate the gruesome killings alongside former Army Intelligence Officer and now priest Father Anthony Fowler as they try to catch up with a psychopathic killer before he strikes again and crippling the church in the process.
I had some relatively moderate expectations when I started reading; I was expecting an entertaining read. Indeed, the set of the novel reminded me of an episode of Criminal Minds, which was interesting. However, I found myself literally pushing myself forward to finish the remainder of the book. It wasn’t particularly thrilling, and I think a big part of it has to do with the characters. I had absolutely no sympathy for any of the characters whatsoever. Paola’s short temper and gruff demeanor only went so far and after the first three chapters it was downright annoying, not empowering or whatnot. Her personal thoughts were also rather dull; her personal issues just didn’t ring sincere and coupled with some rather reckless behaviour (which on some level was understandable, she did lose her partner over the course of the investigation, but that also only went so far), it just didn’t add much depth to her character. It also didn’t help the specialization; she’s supposed to specialize in criminal psychology (can’t remember the exact term at the moment) but with her fiery temper, it’s hard to remember that. While I appreciate the author showing that she’s a flawed individual like the next person, her flaws seem to come to the forefront far more quickly and powerfully than her more shining qualities. Anthony Fowler proves to be a bit more complex as a character but even after a while my interest in him diminished.
Another major issue I had with the book was that the more interesting facet of the mystery—the notion of the Vatican having their own secret service outfit, so to speak—was introduced so late in the novel. While there was a massive hint dropped somewhere close to the beginning about it, it didn’t fully come out to the forefront until the last few chapters of the novel. Granted, the bulk of the novel’s focus was on the killer and trying to catch him, but by the time it was introduced, it just felt so forced and out of place. Not to mention I found it rather wary that they described the Swiss Guard as nothing more than for show; as I recall, the Swiss Guard undergo intensive military training so they’re just as able as any soldier from a national army.
However, Jurado did do a good job in portraying the psychological aspects of the killer and his history; it really did feel like an episode of Criminal Minds (a good thing!). He also did a good job at weaving in current day problems that the Church faces (i.e. sexual abuse scandals) and with placing this novel in its time period (April 2005). But because of the glaring issues of character development and the introduction of a story element so late in the novel, I just couldn’t enjoy the novel like other people had.