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What’s the point of the violence and tough talk in Declan Finn’s supernatural detective story? It’s the stuff of every good story: the grueling battle between good and evil. The question is not so much whether there is violence, but how it is treated.

Some weeks ago in these pages I wrote asking where Catholic fiction was—wondering why there were not more Catholic storytellers. Declan Finn popped into the comments box, and that led me to reach out, not only to try one of his novels, but to meet him online.

Hell Spawn is the first of twelve action-packed stories featuring Detective Tommy Nolan—a hard-punching, hard-praying New York cop whom I describe as a cross between John McClane—(Bruce Willis’s wisecracking terrorist hunter in the Die Hard movies) and Padre Pio. If that seems impossibly incongruous, get hold of a Saint Tommy novel and see what conclusions you come up with.

In his debut, Saint Tommy discovers his saintly superpowers. He can bi-locate, smell evil, levitate, and wallop baddies as fit and flamboyantly as Batman. Detective Tommy has to investigate a truly horrible serial killer who has ominous links with the similarly murderous abortion industry. Without giving too much away, our hero figures out the puzzle and engages in no small amount of serious street-fighting as he encounters gang members, corruption, and a seriously depraved and demon-possessed killer.

Be warned, Hell Spawn is not for the squeamish or for your pre-teen kids. There’s guts and gore and lots of violence. Think Tarantino with a rosary.

Declan Finn is clearly not aiming for the high-brow literary readership. Jane Austen he ain’t. He writes schlock Catholic fiction. How are we to respond? I have commented elsewhere on the violence in the films of Quentin Tarantino. The flying gore and gallons of fake blood are so unreal and over the top that they approach the cartoon violence of Wile E Coyote getting crushed by the anvil from the Acme Anvil Company. It’s the stuff of comic books—and is that such a bad thing? Superhero comics are the myths of our day.

Finn’s supernatural superhero story is a bit like that. What’s the point of the violence and tough talk? It’s the stuff of every good story: the grueling battle between good and evil. The question is not so much whether there is violence, but how it is treated.

Finn raises the issues of good and evil, crime and punishment within the story itself. Saint Tommy is chummy with a good number of the criminals, saying they are not bad people. They are people who do bad things. On the other hand, he is unrelenting in the pursuit and punishment of the criminals who not only do bad things, but are truly bad people—those who have given themselves over to the Lord of Chaos and his minions.

Curious to know more, I contacted Declan Finn and posed some questions about him and his work:

DL: Your character Detective Tommy Nolan is a wise-cracking, hard-hitting New York cop. He is also a saint in the making. Where did he come from?

DF: Tommy Nolan came from Saint John’s University, 2001, a course on Christian spirituality and mysticism. We spent about ten or fifteen minutes on charisms. At “smelling evil,” I thought “This would be useful for a cop.” And after hearing about levitation and bilocation, my first thought was “Give saints a cape and they can get a comic book run.”

DL: Are you playing to the super-hero audience?

I didn’t deliberately set out to make him a superhero when I started. It just happened along the way.

DL: Ive read Hell Spawn—the first Saint Tommy book. It involves the hunt for a demon-possessed serial killer. You dont spare us the gory details. Do you think youve gone over the top? In other words, isnt this gratuitous violence?

DF: Have you seen The Passion of the Christ? Realism gets messy. Evil gets messier. I designed the villain around research into serial killers and the demonic. The killer’s method of murder was ripped from real life. I only wish that it was too fantastic to exist in the real world. It is gory, and it seems gratuitous … until the reader gets to one of the punchlines.

Believe it or not, I hid a lot of details behind clinical delivery and medical terminology. Many readers don’t realize some of the more horrific garbage that happened.

DL: Your hero is not just wise-cracking. Hes wise-guy cracking. From the start hes knee-capping criminals, slapping them down, crunching their bones, elbowing and head-butting their faces and body-slamming them. Is this the role model for Catholic men and boys? Arent you glorifying and thereby endorsing violence?

DF: Tommy is a role model. He understands proportional response. As a priest from prison ministry told me, most criminals aren’t bad people, only people having done bad things. But some evil doesn’t want to be talked down or reasoned with. Evil needs to be stopped; sometimes it doesn’t get stopped with harsh language.

Most of the melee combat comes from my own physical training. I try to make it as realistic as possible.

Glorifying? Yikes. Considering what I put Tommy through, I seriously hope not. Especially given his medical bills.

DL: Hell Spawn has a strong anti-abortion theme. The serial killer is also an abortionist. What would you say to those who might accuse you of encouraging violence against abortion providers?

DF: Been there, done that, read those reviews. They’re idiots who didn’t read the book. They just skimmed the book until they were offended.

Funny thing is, I didn’t go in with “a theme.” I didn’t put in an opinion. Nor did Tommy. I only let the other side talk.

DL: Hell Spawn is unashamedly populist. Youre clearly not aiming to write the next Brideshead Re-Visited. Is this the way forward for Catholic fiction? Does a contemporary Catholic hero really need to be a cross between John McClane and Padre Pio?

DF: Of course I didn’t want to write the next Brideshead, I want people to read my book.

Did Jesus only come to save the intellectuals? Not how I recall it.

The contemporary Catholic hero does not need to be John McClane. But we need to focus on good writing, creating interesting characters, with a plot that holds the reader’s attention. I write action. The hero developed accordingly.

Some see populism as a slur. As a historian and the coauthor of a philosophy textbook, I can tell you that the readers of my populist texts have personally reached out to me and told me that my books convinced them to return to church. At least one reader has just been baptized and credits my work as an influence.

DL: I believe it. There is a longing for muscular Christianity. There is a lot of navel-gazing about the present state of Catholic fiction/literature. In your opinion what is the way forward? 

The way forward is to write a good story. I have never gone out of my way to make anything Catholic. It usually just happens. Catholicism is a part of me, and so are the books.

What is the worst characteristic of contemporary Catholic fiction? What are the best examples?

I can and have done whole rants on that. Contemporary Catholic fiction suffers from conflict-free storytelling, with plots that are low- to no-stakes soap opera dramatics, featuring characters so unbelievable, they make Hallmark movies look good. It’s so bad, it was a joke in one of my Hell Spawn reviews.

I am a member of several Catholic writers groups and organizations. If I give you the best examples of the worst of Catholic fiction, I will have a dozen holy rollers put a hit out on me. So, no comment.

What advice would you give to an aspiring Catholic fiction author?

First piece of advice: start writing. Books don’t write themselves.

Second, tell a good story. Don’t preach at your readers.

Where can our readers learn more about your work and get your books?

I have a substack, at Declanfiin.substack.com.

My blog is at DeclanFinn.com

On Twitter, I’m DeclanFinnBooks.

I’m also at MeWe, Facebook, and anywhere social media pops up.

My books are on every e-book vendor—if not now, then coming soon.

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