A THIEF IN THE NIGHT The Mysterious Death of Pope John Paul I by John Cornwell (Simon & Schuster: $19.95; 366 pp.) BY SONJA BOLLE

On Aug. 28, 1978, the conclave of bishops convened to choose a new Pope, and in the shortest session of the century--almost the shortest in history--elected the relatively unknown Albino Luciani. Mystery surrounded the choice almost immediately: Why, with the new internationalism in church hierarchy, concerns in the Third World and sweeping changes of Vatican II, would there be so little discussion among the bishops? British Cardinal Basil Hume's declaration--"We felt as if our hands were being guided as we wrote his name on the paper!"--didn't satisfy everyone.

"In his first press conference as John Paul I," writes John Cornwell, "Luciani enthralled the world with his simplicity and humor." He announced his desire to be known not as Pontiff, but as Pastor of the Church, and he was dubbed "the smiling Pope."

Thirty three days later, at age 65, John Paul I was declared dead of a heart attack. But suspicious circumstances--the Pope's excellent health reports, for example--and conflicting statements from the Vatican immediately pointed to a cover-up, if not to foul play. Among the most sensational of the rumors were that a secret autopsy had been performed and that the morticians had been summoned before the official time given for the discovery of the body.

Cornwell, a British journalist, was invited by the Vatican in 1987 to lay to rest the various conspiracy theories that had persistently circulated. One faction claimed that the Pope had been murdered by liberals in the church because of his intention to dismantle the changes of Vatican II; others asserted that Freemasons had infiltrated the church hierarchy and done him in. Yet other theories offered more specific names and motives, and some inevitably linked the affair to the Banco Ambrosiano scandal.

Cornwell retreads ground covered by other investigators (books have appeared in several languages on the subject), but his account has the flair of a mystery novel. "The Vatican expected me to prove that John Paul I had not been poisoned by one of their own," he writes tantalizingly, but ". . . the evidence led me to a conclusion that seems to me more shameful even, and more tragic, than any of the conspiracy theories." He tracks down sources, reports conversations and muses on the facts, building his case as artfully as any detective whose method depends on analysis of human character. Without giving away secrets, the reviewer can say that Cornwell's story works because he manages to look behind the conspiracy theories at people's propensity to prefer complicated explanations to simple ones. In the end, he concludes, "John Paul I died scorned and neglected by the institution that existed to sustain him."

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