So, you're going to right a history novel that's both thrilling and accurate, without resorting to something over the top fantastical in the meantime?
The answer there is: that's nice, wake me when you're done.
Oh, darn, wait—I want to write it!
Before I begin the process of this book's creation, I should make something clear. I've wanted to write for a living since I was sixteen. By the time I had started A Pius Man, I had written almost a dozen other novels; a science fiction quartet that started as fan fiction and turned into a space opera; a thriller trilogy about a Secret Service Agent and the CIA assassin who kept running into each other; a murder mystery set in a Catholic high school summer camp; another mystery set at a science fiction convention; a hostage novel; I won't discuss the short stories. None of them had been published, but I had other things to do—high school, two bachelor's in three years, a master's in one, I was generally busy.
My point: writing wasn't an issue. I had more or less taught myself keyboarding by the time I had gotten the concept of the book, and had developed a mental habit of innovation out of the weirdest little things, as well as the ability to write for thirty hours straight.
But now, a new project. Working on a thriller encapsulating everything I had learned about Pope Pius XII. So, when in doubt, the title had to be a bad pun. Title: A Pius Man.
Then the questions started.
Well, where do I set the novel? Another world hopping journey, digging in the muck and mire, or perhaps solving puzzles laid out from World War II?
Been there, done that, and we've probably all seen that movie. If only for Ian McKellen's acting.
So, if I'm not going to bounce around the planet, where am I going to put this?
A few years prior, I had wanted to make a murder mystery set in the Vatican. I had never gotten past page one, but I wanted to have the scene open with a dead priest and a knife in his back.
So, when dealing with the Roman Catholic church, go to Rome. Check.
We need a conspiracy—what fiction with the Catholic church in it doesn't have some kind of deep dark conspiracy around it? Not counting The Exorcist.... few. Who's behind it? Well, the standard options are the government, the Church, or intelligence agencies.... I came up with a fun combination of all three.
Next step: who was I going to use in this mischegas of a plot? I didn't want an automatic hero. I didn't want a protagonist to leap out of a telephone booth or a police box. It wasn't happening. I needed vague characters. Someone whose loyalty the audience would question along the way. It wasn't going to be a paranoid thriller, but there are segments where it would be close.
One character was someone I had already invented—Commander Giovanni Figlia of the Vatican Office of Vigilance. His job is to protect the Pope. But if the Pope is guilty of a crime, or of conspiracy to commit murder, then what can he do? And just how do you arrest a pontiff anyway? He was already in Rome, a bit player I had invented for the background of a few other novels. It was time to give him a personality. A back story. Anything at all, really.
That's one...but what could possibly get him involved in a conspiracy going back decades?
Oh, that's easy. Kill an academic. Someone going through the Vatican archives. The “secret” archives, even though that's a bad translation error. Kill someone looking into Pope Pius XII.
Now, are we going to kill this guy in the Vatican? Really? Because I can't imagine how else we're going to involve Figlia...
Oooooh, wait, a bomb can fling a body a good distance, right? I can work with that.
Next, we need a fish out of water. Someone for whom the audience can relate to when she goes “Huh?” Especially when the audience is trying to figure out what sort of rabbit hole they fell into. My Alice had to be as out of place in the world of European Catholicism as possible... and who would be more out of place than an American Jew? Yes, my Alice is a Wilhelmina “Villie” Goldberg. Immediately, I had a vision of a short Italian acquaintance come to mind. She'd do for a physical model—about 4'11”. She'd have to be part of a security service, and making her American would make her a Secret Service agent.
Though if I stuck with that physical model, she would be a little short for a Secret Service agent who played human shield. However, foreign governments talk to the Secret Service about improving security, and all you need is a brain for that. So, when in doubt, get her from the NSA—which provided technical support for the protagonists.
How are we going to get her involved? Have her be there when we drop a body on Figlia... or his general area, at least. Check.
Somehow, having all this going on without another interested party being involved seemed unlikely. Someone from Mossad—if the Israelis wouldn't be interested in this subject, who would? Mossad involvement was easy to arrange—I created a character in one of my notebooks, someone who had arrived in Israel as part of a small emigration from the United States. A Gentile in Mossad... we have to call this section the Goyim brigade.
And what would attract anyone in Mossad to Rome? That's easy enough—there had been an earlier victim who had been researching the archives, and he was connected to terrorism. A dead terrorist with no confirmed killer—looks a bit suspicious. And a second dead body connected to Pius XII, seriously suspicious.
Mossad gets most of its intelligence from Germany, and the Germans would be involved anyway, given the subject matter—they are sort of touchy about the 1930s and 40s. So, throw in someone from German Intelligence. Two spies, check.
A neutral party would be good. Some character who has NO horse in this particular race; who has no investment in Pius XII being guilty, innocent, or not guilty by reason of insanity. Jews are out, Christians are out.... and if the Pope was going to declare a propaganda war on the Middle East (see below), he would probably tour it. Which means there would be a security specialist to coordinate with the Swiss Guards. He'd be connected to Figlia, for the coordination, and Goldberg, because she'd be improving security. But it would be too easy to have him be visibly neutral and good. We're suspecting everyone else, why not him? Hmm... oh, yeah, it seems that he stoned his wife to death. That'll work.
Check one investigative team: Papal Security, the Secret Service, and someone from, oh, make it Egypt.
And there's a wild card that has to be tossed in. Just to make everyone wonder what the hell goes on at the Vatican.... well, the man who shot Pope John Paul II was first jumped by a nun. Given how many clergy are in Vatican City, it would be more likely for one of them to first get to an assailant than some of the Swiss Guard. And if that should ever happen again, I would sure as hell want to bring in a security expert to train them....
Enter security specialist Sean A.P. Ryan. Already, he's earned comparisons to the comic book character Deadpool, the mercenary who will, occasionally, do the right thing, if only as a last resort. Not to mention being bat guano crazy. Wild card, check.
And what good is a mystery without a murdered witness? After all, they have Vatican trials for saints. Witnesses appear. One of the better known priests that I knew of was an Irish priest named Fr. Caroll-Abbing; he arranged much of the aide in Rome for fugitives and refugees. Caroll-Abbing was a real figure, but also quite dead when I started writing. However, I'm sure he must have had an aide. Caroll-Abbing was an Irish priest, assume an Irish aide.... and I had another character all ready and sketched out: Interpol Agent Maureen McGrail. And I had given her a previous professional dislike of Sean Ryan. We get to have some more fun that way.
And her arrival will certainly confirm that the events were all about Pope Pius XII—a dead academic may be accident, a murdered terrorist coincidence, but a murdered witness is enemy action.
I had my primary lineup. Two spies; a proper team of Papal Security et al; and two people from out of town. A three-tiered story. Works for me. In several books, Tom Clancy did at least three storylines for a hundred pages before he brought them together in a train wreck. I won't dawdle quite that long.
No, time to insert some paranoia. In any good thriller, you need to be under the impression that you can get it in the neck at any time from any direction. Kind of like a fast season of 24. We're in a thriller with the Catholic church, we must have at least one sinister looking priest, and a highly suspicious looking pope, someone so invested in the reputation of Pius XII, he'd do practically anything to see it's protected.
Hence Pope Pius XIII, who wants to make the World War II pontiff a saint, make him a figure to rally around....for...? Hmm. Rally around for what?
Enter another graduate course I took—problems in Contemporary African history. I had done a paper on the war in the Sudan, a war going on and off since the early 1980s. This Pope would have grown up with his country ignored, left to be bombed to hell, and—Darfur? Really? Thirty years of bloody warfare, civilians killed, churches bombed, and the world media focuses on one town? I suspect he would be a little put out by that, especially if he had lived in a town no one never heard of before or after it was wiped from the map.
How could I possibly make the Pope look sinister? I know—make him somewhere to the right of Attila the Hun. He's using Pope Pius XII as a banner, using one side of the “debate” (mentioned in Part 1 of this article), Pius XII as hero and saint.
But, while making the Pope as sinister figure is nice—he's not going to run around Rome in a white robe trying to be inconspicuous. Especially since he's over two meters tall, and doesn't exactly blend in around Italy. (One acquaintance of mine returned from Rome and said “There are black people in Italy. Oh. My. God.” She was so shocked and appalled... she also wonders why I don't talk to her anymore.) He needs something every good Evil Overlord requires—a lackey. We need another priest.
Already have one. In a previous novel I drafted, I created a priest wandering around in the background—a priest with combat training from his time in special forces. He has martial training, kicks ass, and he has silver hair, and pale skin—no one would ever take him for an albino. Of course not. Suspicious looking lackey, check.
A three-layered plot with a wandering priest tying them all together.
Works for me.
Now it has to be written.... Oh, shoot me now...