I recently finished Declan Finn’s Hell Spawn.
It is a deceptively ambitious novel. The premise is simple–a supernatural action thriller with a hero who is a good man. Thomas Nolan, New York City detective, is a Catholic saint–or, more accurately, has the potential to be one, since in Catholic theology one cannot be a saint until after one is dead.
There is a fair amount of Catholic theology in this novel. As an outsider to the Catholic church, I found the explanations of doctrine sprinkled through the story interesting without slowing the pace of the story. Finn tells us just enough to provide suspension of disbelief. If one accepts the metaphysics presented in the story (and I had no difficulty doing so) then the events are logical.
But that’s just the framework the story hangs on. This is not a philosophical novel, it’s an action story. And as I said above, it’s an action story with a hero who is a good man. Reading this book I was startled to realize that is, in today’s literary scene, a revolutionary concept.
Conventional wisdom tells us that a hero cannot be interesting without being flawed. Finn rejects that entirely. Tommy isn’t flawless (another element of Catholic and Christian doctrine is that all human beings are fallen and sinful) but he’s good. He is a conscientious employee, a dedicated family man, an active member of his church, an enthusiastic volunteer in charitable organizations.
This doesn’t make him dull, however. Much of that is the result of Finn’s narrative style, which is both conversational and compelling. This book is a story told by someone I want to listen to.
Finn, though, works from the assumption that good doesn’t mean boring. And it turns out to be true, despite what the last half-century or so of literary pontification.
The story itself is fairly straightforward. Tommy encounters a killer who exhibits supernatural abilities and at the same time begins to experience events that he can only describe as miraculous. It’s the usual Urban Fantasy opening–which is not to say that it’s predictable or trite. Classic stories are classic because they work.
Just as the hero is plain and simply a good man, the antagonist–I don’t consider it a spoiler to say that it is a literal demon, since that information is on the book jacket–is pure and simply evil. It is not humanized or softened or explained. The evil is unalloyed, and bad things happen in this book.
Really bad things.
In my opinion, though, the book does suffer from some of the conventions of Urban Fantasy. The “hero discovers the secret world” plotline feels at times a bit formulaic. The supporting characters–Tommy’s partner in particular, who fulfils the roll of Cynic–switch from “You’re insane” to “I guess all this supernatural stuff is real” a bit too quickly for my taste. But that’s a minor complaint.
The ending was a little more of a problem for me. Without going into details, it went full X-Men pretty quickly, and I would have preferred more subtlety. But I wouldn’t call it unsatisfying or say that it ruined the book.
All in all, it’s a solid book on its own merits, an enjoyable action thriller. Finn takes a gamble in creating a hero with the characteristics and abilities of a Catholic saint, and it pays off. And I have to admit that working within the framework of his own faith rather than adopting someone else’s mythology takes a certain amount of guts.
Highly recommended. I have just started the second book in the series, Death Cult, and I’ll be interested to see if he can keep the momentum going.