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Originally published Sunday, July 13, 2014 at 6:06 AM

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Carroll’s ‘Warburg in Rome’: rot at the heart of the Vatican

James Carroll’s top-notch new thriller, “Warburg in Rome,” uses actual events to tell a story of corruption at the heart of the Vatican during and after World War II.

Special to The Seattle Times


‘Warburg in Rome’

by James Carroll

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 384 pp., $28

It’s a tribute to James Carroll’s novelistic prowess that about three-quarters of the way into his new thriller “Warburg in Rome,” I found myself Googling some of the major characters to see if they were real or made up. Carroll’s protagonist, David Warburg, an ambitious young Jewish-American lawyer posted to newly liberated Rome in 1944 to head up the War Refugees Board, is clearly an invention. Warburg’s boss, FDR’s secretary of the treasury Henry Morgenthau Jr., is clearly real.

But what about Father Vukas, the vicious Franciscan priest who kills children for sport at the Sisak Children’s Concentration Camp in Croatia? Or Colonel Peter Mates, an undercover OSS officer who secretly recruits ex-Nazis for America’s postwar campaign against communism?

Both are invented — but the events these characters participated in really happened. As Carroll writes in an author’s note, “The lines of this book are fiction, but the dots they connect are history.” Carroll has fastened on an explosively dramatic time and place in history: the Eternal City in the shadow years that spanned brutal war and traitorous peace.

A master of many genres (his memoir “An American Requiem” won the National Book Award and “Constantine’s Sword,” his history of Catholic persecution of Jews, was a best-seller), Carroll hews here to the well-worn conventions of the thriller. Multiple story lines converge; double and triple games are played; sex is bartered for intelligence; evil is unmasked and good, though tarnished, is rewarded.

But what elevates “Warburg” several notches above the standard is Carroll’s deft evocation of the twisted complexities of this period. At the heart of the novel lurks the thorny, unresolved question of the extent to which the Vatican abetted the Nazis and turned its back on Europe’s Jews. Carroll’s depiction of the Papal court makes it plain that the wartime Vatican was hideously corrupt, cynical and cared only about preserving its own power and prestige.

Warburg (no relation to the German-Jewish banking family) arrives in Rome an innocent idealist determined to rescue as many Jews as possible. His inevitable disillusionment — first with the Church, then with the American military — drives the plot in the first third of the book. But to my mind, Warburg is too wooden and predictable to carry the narrative. His embrace of the Jewish faith he abandoned in his youth feels forced; his pursuit of the willowy, beguiling Red Cross worker Marguerite d’Erasmo is foregone from the moment they cross paths and lock eyes at Ciampino Airport in chapter two.

More complexly realized is Monsignor Kevin Deane, a fictional Bronx-born factotum to the actual Francis Cardinal Spellman. Dispatched to Rome to do the Cardinal’s bidding, Deane, like Warburg, is shocked by how Nazi-friendly Pius XII’s Vatican is. Despite some misgivings, Deane risks his career by aiding Warburg and blowing the whistle on the “ratline” that the Vatican has set up to smuggle Nazis out of Europe and into Argentina. Carroll, a former priest, is clearly outraged over the moral failings of the Church. Monsignor Deane — a priest who keeps his vow of chastity and follows the dictates of his conscience — is the rare good Catholic in this story who maintains his integrity, and his faith, despite the failings of the church.

As a longtime devotee of the Eternal City, I’ll confess I was hoping for some backlit crumbling arches and Baroque fountains — but Carroll’s Rome is more reminiscent of Hawthorne’s “The Marble Faun” than Woody Allen’s “To Rome With Love.” It’s a sad, sinister, double-dealing place with a long history of oppression and betrayal. With impeccable research and serviceable plot and characters, Carroll has neatly captured one brief chapter of that history.

Seattle author David Laskin is the author of “The Family: Three Journeys into the Heart of the 20th Century ”(Viking).

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