On May 4, 1998, three people were shot in an apartment not far from the residence of Pope John Paul II. Within minutes, the Vatican isolated the crime scene from outside policing agencies and began a private investigation into the event. The bodies were identified as Colonel Alois Estermann, the commander of the Swiss Guard, his wife Meza Romero, and a young lance corporal by the name of Cédric Tournay. An unofficial explanation came hours later. Estermann and his wife were shot by Tournay in a fit of pique over not receiving a medal. Tournay then shot himself. The story was affirmed nine months later at the end of the internal inquiry.
John Follain, a reporter for the London Sunday Times and the author of a biography about the terrorist Carlos the Jackal, was intrigued by the news almost immediately, and began a campaign to get in touch with young Tournay’s mother. At first she ignored him, and Follain let the matter slide. After the official account was released to the public and heartbroken by the Vatican’s characterizations of her son as a murderer, the woman contacted Follain and asked him to look into the circumstances of Cédric’s death. City of Secrets is the story of John Follain’s personal investigation of these murders.
The book’s descriptions of Vatican politics and religious traditions paint a rich and intriguing background to the sad story of this murder/suicide. From the cold fish Chaplin of the Swiss Guard to a bisexual adventurer who may or may not be a priest to Tournay’s strange bohemian girlfriend, the story is peopled with an odd assortment of characters, none of whom know what happened between Tournay and the Estermanns.
As Follain tracks down the events leading up to crime, his frustration with the culture of secrecy within the bureaucracy of the Catholic Church is evident. His condemnatory tone leads to an expectation of a huge Watergate type cover-up. Why did the Vatican deny reporters access to the supporting documentation behind the official announcement? Why did the Church not mention the homosexual activities of Estermann and Tournay? Why were members of the Swiss Guard sworn to silence? The reader waits for a big coup d'état that never comes. In the end, after tracking down Tournay’s friends and enemies, Follain’s explanation for what happens is not that much different from the Vatican’s.
What remains is a book that is strangely plotless. Oh, there is the disappointing depiction of the Swiss Guard as an organization high on frosting and bereft of cake. There is the mysterious religious cult functioning within the Vatican with the Pope’s approval. There is the depressing saga of a young man who would murder others and die himself over a medal that does no more than honor length of service. And there is the reporter who smells a story that never quite materializes.