10/22/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Destroying the Pope in Fiction

Initially, I was hesitant to accept an advanced readers' copy of Luis Miguel Rocha's latest thriller, The Holy Bullet (Putnam), for review until I was told that Rocha based the story on actual information he got in 2005 from a man who claims to have killed Pope John Paul I and that elements of the conspiracy are factual. Even though I hadn't read The Last Pope, which is the first in this series, I was then intrigued and agreed to take a look at this novel.

I recall when Pope John Paul I died in his sleep after having been in his papacy for only thirty-three days and at the time it crossed my mind that maybe something shady had gone on, so delving into a thriller speculating about this incident had my attention, especially when it was described as a "fast-paced mystery." Therefore, I was looking forward to reading this one, especially since fiction often does what non-fiction cannot do; unfortunately, that was not the case this time.

I don't know a whole lot about this author except that his brief bio states he worked for many years in London as a television writer and producer. That can only explain his writing style, one that I found to be cumbersome--where Rocha gives direction to the characters, direction that the reader must wade through in order to find the plot. Instead of being on a roller-coaster ride, I felt I was being led through a maze of muddled exposition, one from which I wanted to escape and it wasn't long before I stopped caring about the possible ways and whys the pope died. Perhaps the story alone should have been enough to pull me in and for the casual reader who loves blood and murder and doesn't mind that the narration is constantly interrupted by extraneous descriptions, emotions described with clichés and the constant use of adverbs, maybe it isn't a problem. However, for someone who appreciates how a story is conveyed, I found it difficult to believe or care about the one-dimensional characters who spoke contrived dialogue and went through the motions simply to reach the conclusion that the writer obviously had in mind from the beginning.

Recently, I asked my Facebook friends, many who are writers, what way would be better for neophyte writers to learn their craft: reading books from best-selling authors or the classics that hold up over time? The exchange was fascinating and most agreed that writers should read everything, the good and the bad, since they could learn from both. With that in mind, I do hope new writers see the difference from being told instead of shown when characters are sad, scared, curious, or constantly shocked with shivers up and down their spine. After all, show, don't tell is one of the first rules for writers. For me, though, I knew upon cracking open this novel, The Holy Bullet wasn't going to offer any proof about how Pope John Paul I actually died; what I didn't expect was that a work of fiction would make me apathetic to his demise.