Set in the immediate aftermath of World War II, The Conduct of Saints by Christopher Davis traces the lives of several characters in Rome. The first is the canon lawyer named Brendan Doherty, a Philadelphia native working for the Vatican in two disturbing cases. The first involves the child-murderer Alessandro Serenelli. Serenelli murdered Maria Goretti, a twelve year old girl the Vatican bureaucracy wants to see canonized. At least they hope to, preferably when the occupying American Army leaves Italy. Doherty’s second case involves the mass murderer Pietro Koch, the former Republic of Salo* police chief responsible for slaughtering anti-Nazi partisans. Despite Koch’s horrific crimes, Doherty does his best to lobby against the death penalty, something he opposes on moral grounds.
Davis creates historical fiction with an eye towards human fallibility and the consequences of total war. While there is machinations, treachery, and postwar moral murkiness, this isn’t your garden variety historical espionage yarn. While Serenelli has amnesia about his crime, Doherty has a series of interviews with the child-murderer to prompt him to remember. Part of this is a moral issue for Doherty. He wants Serenelli’s guilt to be genuine. Serenelli’s childlike faith and clear conscience jibe with the tortured Doherty. The Pope also pressures to make his investigation as short and painless as possible, so the gears of beatification can go off without a hitch. One sees how the Holy See wants to beatify Maria Goretti in the hopes of inspiring Italian youth. This idealism is undercut by a mercenary desire to have the means justify the ends in a way reminiscent of a Mad Men-style marketing campaign. “Maria Goretti, ya know, for the kids!” Amidst the gilt decorations, polished marble, and fine linens, children prostitute their siblings for cigarettes. The Italians see the American Army as a means of liberation and regaining some dignity, at the same time, this is another set of foreign occupiers. Any one watching the TV series The Borgias or has read The Leopard by Giuseppe di Lampedusa understands Italy’s history of occupying armies and the legacy of nineteenth century nationalism. Mussolini tried to recreate the glories of the Roman emperors and bequeathed the Italian people another layer of ruins and devastation.
Meanwhile Koch is receiving religious instruction from a pro-fascist bishop in order to be in a state of grace when he is executed. Doherty gets battered by the perplexing mental states of these two men he represents and battling his own deeply closeted homosexuality. Davis has created a morally tortured individual that reminds the reader of the tortured souls in the novels of Graham Greene and Robert Littell. Both Greene and Littell wrote masterworks of international espionage, but they also populated their works with realistic portraits of individuals plunked down in impossible circumstances.
The Conduct of Saints is recommended for those looking for challenging historical fiction. Even though the novel focuses on the inner turmoil of a Catholic priest, one doesn’t have to be Catholic to appreciate the novel. The turmoil of military occupation and the moral twilight of a culture steeped in war should be familiar enough to anyone familiar with the War on Terror’s ethically murky legacy.
*The Republic of Salo was the short-lived puppet regime set up by the Nazis following the downfall of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. It lasted two years.