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A Thief in the Night: Life and Death in the Vatican Paperback – May 1, 2001

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Just 33 days into the reign of Pope John Paul I in 1978, it was reported that he had died of a heart attack. But within the Vatican, there were conflicting answers to the most basic questions: Who found the body? What was the time of death? What was the actual state of the pope's health prior to death? A Thief in the Night is John Cornwell's investigation of the mysterious circumstances surrounding John Paul's death. It is also a profound exploration of the nature of sin and the definition of crime. Inconsistencies in the story spawned rumors of conspiracy to murder the so-called "smiling pope," whose ideological stances were sufficiently complex as to threaten both conservative and liberal interests in the Church and abroad. Fingers pointed towards the KGB, the Freemasons, and the pope's own top advisors. Then, in 1987, the Vatican invited Cornwell (whose other books include the bestselling Hitler's Pope) to conduct an independent investigation of the pope's death. His investigation reads like a detective novel: 44 short chapters record Cornwell's encounters with most of the major characters of this mystery, including the Pope's personal secretaries and the Vatican doctor who signed his death certificate. Ultimately, A Thief in the Night argues that John Paul showed clear symptoms of fatal illness in the days leading up to his death, and that these symptoms were willfully ignored by everyone around him. Thus, Cornwell argues, the sins that killed John Paul were sins of omission. The fantastic conspiracy theories, he argues, serve one purpose: "they deflect attention from the most obvious and shameful fact of all: that John Paul I died scorned and neglected by the institution that existed to sustain him." --Michael Joseph Gross

Review

A deep and exhaustive penetration of the Vatican. -- Graham Greene

A model of investigative journalism and a small masterpiece of the genre. -- Anthony Burgess

As brilliantly written as a prize-winning mystery story. -- Andrew Greeley
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books; Reprint edition (May 1, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0141001836
  • ISBN-13: 978-0141001838
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.1 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (22 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,033,805 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

18 of 19 people found the following review helpful By Johnathan Steele on March 17, 2006
Format: Paperback
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Anyone interested in the death of the 33-day Pope should read this book as it is the Vatican's side of the story. It was commissioned by Rome in order to quell rumors of foul play in the 33-day-Pope's death raised by David Yallop's best seller `In God's Name.' In exchange for Cornwell's promise to conclude the Pope died of a 'heart attack,' the Vatican permitted him to interview some of those who had been in the papal palace the night the Pope died. The most important of these witnesses to Cornwell's conclusion the Pope died of'pulmonary embolism' was John MaGee who, by coincidence, at about the same time (1987) was made a bishop. One can only surmise this was a tit-for-tat deal. (seatch Google: Bishop John MaGee).

A more recent book has the advantage of time - things we know today that we didn't know when these things happened. Lucien Gregoire's The Vatican Murders: The Life and Death of John Paul I employs what is known by the medical community today which was not known when Cornwell wrote his book. Any member of the medical profession today will tell you it is impossible to determine the cause of an unwitnessed death unless the cause of death is obvious. The cause of such a death can only determined by autopsy - something the Vatican refused to perform.

To conclude the Pope's condition of 'low blood pressure' contributed to the Pope's `heart attack' or, for that matter, 'pulmnonary embolism' may have been a sound conclusion twenty years ago, but not today. As late as 1987, when Cornwell wrote his book, it was believed that low blood pressure could be a factor in 'heart attack' or 'pulmonary embolism.
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32 of 41 people found the following review helpful By Fanoula Sevastos on February 17, 2002
Format: Paperback
When Pope John Paul I died suddenly after only 33 days into his Papacy, conspiracy theories and rumors of murder erupted because of inconsistencies in the Vatican's statements. Officially, the Pope died of a heart attack, but there were conflicting stories as to who found the body, what time the body was found, what time the Pope died, which spawned further questions outside the Vatican about things like why there was no autopsy, why the embalming began so soon, etc. And as time went on, the murder-conspiracy theories got really out of hand.
John Cornwell, who also wrote Hitler's Pope, investigates these allegations as an independent journalist, ten years after the fact. He interviews all the major Vatican players, gains access to the current Pope, and learns very little new information. Except that there is all sorts of confusion about aspects of that night which seems to be inherent to the way the Vatican is run, not specifically to why this pope died. Cornwell ultimately comes up with his own theory of what happened that night.
Each chapter is pretty much a transcript of one of Cornwell's interviews. It goes something like this: I arrived here, had to get through red tape, finally got permission to talk to so and so, and this is what they said to me: transcript. I found it pretty uninspiring.
If there is any interest to be found here at all, it's the glimpse you get into the Vatican. One of the advantages of having so much of the book be in other people's words, is the immediate access the reader has into the personalities that make up the Vatican. There is so much gossip going on it and so much back-stabbing, at times it feels like a soap opera. As far as Cornwell's investigation goes, it's pretty wimpy. Yeah, he talks to a bunch of people, and he does find out some interesting tidbits that clear up a few minor points up, but all in all, there was very little here to warrant a book. He should have written a magazine article and been done with it.
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23 of 29 people found the following review helpful By brent howell on August 6, 2005
Format: Paperback
A "Thief in the Night" was commissioned by the Vatican (1987) to quell the rumors stirred up by David Yallop's masterpiece "In God's Name" (1983). The author was allowed by John Paul II to interview several people who were in the Papal Palace the night his predecessor died. The primary witness

interviewed is John MaGee - at the time of the Pope's death he was John Paul's secretary.

That John MaGee was elevated to the rank of bishop a month after he gave his interview with John Corwell is telling evidence that a payoff or at the very least a conflict of interest was invloved in his testimony. The author concludes everything that the Vatican wants him to conclude concerning the death of John Paul, including the absolute conviction that the Pope died of a heart attack. Since no autopsy was performed it is impossible to conclude what he died of as his death was unwitnessed - only one of two Popes in the two thousand years of Popes whose death was unwitnessed.

If you want a more riveting tale of the times "In God's Name' is a much better choice. If you want all of the facts and circumstances surounding the mysterious death of this Pope then "Murder in the Vatican" by Lucien Gregoire is the only choice - the latter is also the only existing complete biography of this good man written by a man who knew this Pope.
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7 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Lori Pieper on May 20, 2008
Format: Paperback
This, Cornwell's first book on the Vatican, has been given a comparative amount of praise compared to his other misinformed screeds, including the atrocious "Hitler's Pope." But in fact "A Thief in the Night" is just as bad as the others. Even many Catholic reviewers took it at face value, especially since the subject (what happened in the Vatican the night John Paul I died) had never been covered by someone relying on tape-recorded interviews with eyewitnesses. David Yallop's previous sensational best-seller on the subject "In God's Name,' had been almost completely undocumented. But does reliance on eyewitnesses testimony mean what Cornwell reports is genuine?

In short, no. In fact, Cornwell's record is no better in this book than it would be in "Hitler's Pope." Cornwell's lies begin with the way his book was researched and written. He says that he just happened to be visiting the Vatican researching another subject in October 1987 when Archbishop Foley practically begged him to drop what he was doing and write about the death of Pope John Paul I. Not only is this entirely contrary to the Vatican's usual methods, Archbishop Foley and the Vatican have repeatedly denied that they commissioned the book. And though he does do something to counteract the absurd conspiracy theory about John Paul I's death put forward by David Yallop, Cornwell did the Vatican and the Church no favors with his work.

Many of those interviewed for the book, including Marjorie Weeke, Sister Irma Dametto, and the Pope's niece, Lina Petri, as well as Cornwell's two main witnesses, Don Diego Lorenzi and Bishop John Magee, John Paul I's secretaries in the Vatican, have denounced Cornwell for his MANY errors and misinterpretations of fact.
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