With books like Devil in the White City hitting the best-seller list, it seems to be a good time for the nonfiction historical mystery-thriller. While John Follain’s book City of Secrets: The Truth Behind the Murders at the Vatican is set in 1998, not exactly ancient history, it takes place at the Vatican, one of the most fascinating and mysterious settings in the world. Like a book on sex or drugs, the rich setting and murky goings-on provide City of Secrest with such an absorbing starting point that it’s almost impossible for Follain make the book uninteresting.
The author explores the double murder and suicide presumably committed by 23-year-old Swiss Guard member Cédric Tornay against a fellow guard and his wife. The exact motive is continuously uncertain. Was it because Tornay was passed over for an important promotion? The tensions between German guards and French guards? Over the mysterious actions of the Opus Dei movement of the church? Or because of a homosexual affair gone awry?
Follain writes his book in real time, injecting himself in the story. The reader follows him along as he investigates and interviews, and the order of whom he encounters and what questions he asks is nearly more interesting than the actual mystery itself. He speaks to Tornay’s family, Tornay’s former fellow guards, Tornay’s confessor, members of the Vatican and former members of the Germany’s Stasi.
Because of this literary device, it is impossible to remove Follain from the book, and to nonfiction readers, this can either bring a more personal element—or an unprofessional bent to it. Follain does not hold back from describing the interviewees who he does not like as such. He describes them as smug, cagey, even unattractive. While it makes for good reading loaded with great description, it can definitely be seen as biased, and thus non-credible.
Follain’s story is gripping, the investigation thorough and fascinating, providing an exploration of the mysteries of the Vatican’s public relations policies and its tendency to not reveal every little truth—but, just like when television viewers glancing at their watches know that the dreaded “To Be Continued ” is around the corner, the pages dwindle until the reader realizes that not every answer will be revealed. Like gourmet fusion cooking, once the beautiful garnishes of setting and backstory are pushed aside, what’s left may leave the reader feeling a little empty.
On the same note, loyal followers of the Church may feel put off by the book as well. Follain pulls no punches in discussing what he feels are the archaic, misleading and futile policies of the Vatican and paints the Opus Dei movement as nothing less than a cult. While Follain is loathe to criticize John Paul himself or Catholicism as a religion, it is clear that he doesn’t have much respect for how the Vatican is run as an organization, and for people of faith, this may cloud the investigation.
The magnitude and mystery of Follain’s setting can at times seem a juxtaposition to this relatively minor incident. While a murder at the Vatican is rife with possibilities, in the end, it seems that there are so many more mysterious aspects of the Vatican that could be explored. The murders do not affect the papacy or the church or the people of Rome. Follain reveals the reticence and caginess of the Vatican news service, but in the end, it seems like a rather big buildup to a slight letdown.
However, for appreciators of a mystery, fans of the nonfiction genre and lovers of detail and description, City of Secrets is a quick, tense read. Follain keeps the story moving quickly, even when there appears to be no story at all.