A Pius Man: A Holy Thriller

A Margot St Aubin Review of A Pius Man: A Holy Thriller… by Declan Finn

Catholics, this is your moment. Ever wanted a thrill a minute book about… gasp!… the truth about what we’ve done in history?  Well this book aims to provide– and ultimately succeeds.  But I’m warning you, it’s a roller coaster ride all the way to the finish.

He literally out Dan Browns Dan Brown– but does it RIGHT.  [Ed: No, I didn’t originate turning the man’s name into a verb. Blame the National Catholic Register.  They started it!]

I mean, he does what Dan Brown THINKS he was doing, rather than doing what he actually did–and better.  That is, with real research and real characters and a Pope you’d actually be happy to see Pontiff.  On a FB message I said, “Totally faceplanted Dan Brown”.

You see, I’ve been trying to scratch an itch for a long time. I read quite a number of books, like “A Witch’s Hammer,” “The Davinci Code” and “The Trinity Game” and a few others, only to be frankly pissed off and annoyed. With all these titles, I was so furious I threw the book across the room before I finished it.   If I abandon a book, that’s only because they went awful.  Needless to say, I finished Finn’s  book, and it never hit the wall even once.  I was even smiling.  For several days in a row, I was unable to be a productive human being while I was a slave to reading.

But after I was done, I did want to go over to his website and post, “You sir, are a very BAD man.”  Because he lets you think he’s going to turn on you at any moment. That was almost annoying, was worth it for the payoff.  I had an unfair advantage knowing a few things about the author, and still seduced into thinking it would turn out for the worst. He got to me.

The period for “secrets revealed” in question is Nazi Germany, which is more than a little charged. The Narrative itself is set in modern day (ca 2004-ish present day).But you have to wait, most of the historical data is delivered in dribs and drabs until you get to the big reveal.

There was so much action I was skimming a little bit. It’s a bad habit. I wanted to get to the scenes with people interacting.  Both were well done! So, people who really enjoy a good action scene won’t be disappointed. They are everywhere, and there’s a lot of variety, too. I’m a character development junkie, so this is personal bias. 🙂

Because yes, he has good characters. I wish I saw more of each of them. There is a sizeable ensemble cast, but he manages  them in a clear, coherent fashion. One develops your favorites and starts clamoring for specific data, and little digressions to give you some more meat.

He even provides that, with short stories provided on his website.  This is a much better way to end a chapter than, say, OMG everybody is going to die! Every. Twenty. Seconds.  Yes, Dan Brown, I’m looking at you. I’m going to have to go back and read A Pius Man again to figure out how he managed to move so smoothly between character interaction interweaved with sudden attacks, another body found, and “who was that guy, anyway?!” I didn’t get sea sick once in the course of reading this book.

Lastly, I don’t think I ever saw a character do something mind numbingly stupid. There is a sort-of schlemiel spy character (who really ISN’T James Bond) who has markedly bad luck about certain things. He is also believably skilled and effective in his chosen areas. He also happens to be one of my favorite characters, because he’s much more like a real spy than most fictional figures I’ve read about. Quirky is kind of a requirement. Even things not well thought out happen for clear character driven reasons.

I will admit, the action dotes on Hong Kong Action tropes (see ref “God of Guns” and issue) pushing the envelope of physics. The parties in question do not wield katanas or weapons evolved from medieval Chinese farm implements. But at least one character would, and seeing him bring Japanese steel to bear would not be out of place. There is a lot of improvised weapons, including the ever infamous Rosary Grab. He takes full advantage of the fact that this book takes place on the grounds of Vatican City.

Lastly, if you read widely, or know certain classics of Catholic literature, you will see ghostly references EVERYWHERE. Some of them are hilarious. For example, he manages to thumb his nose yet again at the hapless  DaVinci Code, then doubles down with a reference to The Lord of the World. This in all one stroke that becomes an inside joke all the rest of the way through the novel. I could swear he high-fived John Zmirak (The Grand Inquisitor) and

Oh, and extra kudos for his female characters. The action genre is notorious (not often justified, IMO) for poorly developed female characters, or characters needing to be saved. That is not a problem here. Every female character is a thoroughly realized and incredibly strong person, and not just in the stereotypical ways. He understands women have different strengths under fire. With knowledge these leverage as advantages in the rough and tumble insanity of warfare. That is not something many people understand. In fiction, I haven’t seen this acknowledged since Clancy, or my training in martial arts.

Ramon Casas i Carbó [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Ramon Casas i Carbó [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

There were two factors that led me to assign “only” four stars. First, there were a couple of fiddly details about guns that won’t be a problem in future books. The dreaded cordite meme is there full force, but the rest was done well done, so I could easily forgive that. Second, there were a few too many characters. I had no trouble keeping up, but I read Neil Stephenson obsessively. Fortunately it’s easy as they are well developed individuals.

Note: Excerpts of this review are cross posted on Amazon.com.