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In recent years, the historical novel has become a favored, if suspect, genre. Those suspicions are well-founded: Constrained by the need to conform with a known record, characters in such novels often lack the sort of development found in the best pure fiction. Conversely, taking novelistic liberties to improve the drama can make a mishmash of history.

Tad Szulc’s new historical novel, To Kill the Pope: An Ecclesiastical Thriller (Scribner), puts these tensions on active display. Certainly, “ecclesiastical” and “thriller” are two words rarely seen in the same sentence. Although the subtitle may be a bit arch, the book that follows is a fun read—and an instructive one.

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The 1981 assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II remains one of the great unexplained crimes of our time. Fascination with the event stems, in part, from John Paul’s unique role and importance in the cultural landscape. (He is, undoubtedly, among the few remaining world figures who don’t use focus groups to determine positions.) John Paul’s devotees tend to see him as superhuman. And even his detractors admit that when it counted, he lent his voice to the cry for freedom from communism—and the Wall came tumbling down. The assassination attempt, like the attack on Ronald Reagan, only added to his luster in popular circles.

Szulc, a 74-year-old writer who has made his home in Washington for 31 years—after a career as a diplomatic and foreign correspondent for the New York Times—published a very readable biography of John Paul II in 1995. At the time, according to Szulc, the Vatican’s own investigation into the assassination attempt had come to the startling conclusion that the attack by a Turkish national was not the work of communists or fundamentalist Muslims, but the result of a plot within the church. To Kill the Pope tells the story of that investigation and its results in the form of a roman à clef designed to protect Szulc’s church sources.

Szulc, who is Jewish, says he has received nothing but “friendly responses” from his Vatican friends and sources who have read the book. And his Jewishness never impeded his research for either the biography or the new novel, he says.

“With the pope, my Jewishness never really came up,” says Szulc. “With one happy exception: I accompanied the pope on several of his weekly visits to parish churches in the working-class neighborhoods of Rome. He would introduce me to the welcoming pastor as a writer, an American and then, pausing for effect, as a Jew. I asked him why this mattered in the least. And he told me, ‘It is important that other priests know that the pope enjoys having Jewish friends.’” —Michael Sean Winters