‘Murderous Spirit’: author Q&A with Geoff Loftus

Geoff Loftus is a Catholic thriller novelist and regular contributor at Forbes.com. His thrillers include Double Blind, Engaged to Kill and The Dark Saint, all from Saugatuck Books. He also wrote the non-fiction Lead Like Ike: Ten Business Strategies from the CEO of D-Day (Thomas Nelson) combining his interests in history and business. Mr. Loftus also works for the Gregorian Foundation, which operates out of America House in New York. 

Murderous Spirit: A Jack Tyrrell Novel was published in January by Saugatuck. On April 29, I interviewed Mr. Loftus by email about the new book and his work.

What inspired this new novel?

The inspiration snuck through the back door. I was playing around with a number of ideas, trying to form the basis of a commercially viable series of thrillers. I confess I was completely mercenary about the creation of a series; I didn’t set out to write something spiritual. I was struggling—all I wanted was a character that I wouldn’t mind writing about for a series—but I couldn’t find a premise or a character that interested me. And if a character doesn’t interest me, he’s not going to interest the readers.

Then, in a deus ex machina moment, I realized that using a version of Charles Dickens’s ghostly intervention in A Christmas Carol could send my protagonist, Jack Tyrrell, on a journey that was thrilling and spiritually transformative. I was pretty confident I could keep the action exciting; the real challenge to me was handling the spiritual part of Tyrrell’s story.

Who are you writing for?

I write for the people who buy paperbacks to take on vacation. I’m not an artiste; I’m an entertainer. I just hope to divert and delight the readers for a little bit, take their minds off their worries. I find it very satisfying when I read a book and lose myself in it.

With Murderous Spirit, I also hope that maybe, just maybe, readers will think a little bit about God. If readers are already persons of faith, the book might give them a tiny bit of affirmation. If the readers are in the questioning phase of their faith journey, the story may nudge them in God’s direction.

Why did you choose Murderous Spirit as the title for this book?

I could have called the book “Redeeming Spirit” or “Grateful Spirit,” but those don’t sound like the titles of thrillers. One of the novel’s themes is the nature of each character’s spirit or soul. Tyrrell finds himself worrying that there’s nothing that separates him from the bad guy, a Russian Mafioso who uses violence as easily as a chef would use garlic. But one of the women characters in the story tells Tyrrell that even though he uses violence, too, there is nothing murderous or evil about his spirit.

This book is subtitled “A Jack Tyrrell Novel” and billed as the first in a series of thrillers. Who is Jack Tyrrell and why should readers care about his story?

Redemption stories make for very powerful entertainment, and Tyrrell’s story is definitely of redemption. Tyrrell is a burn out. A former Green Beret and U.S. Marshal, he’s become a drunken loser who, once upon a time, accepted a bribe and was shot by the people who bribed him. Tyrrell survived the shooting. His wife, Maggie, did not. Five years after her death, Maggie appears to him as a ghost and offers him a chance to make things right. She introduces Tyrrell to Harry, who may literally be heaven-sent. Tyrrell, with Harry working as his case manager, sets out to help people and by helping others, he will be redeemed.

What’s the message of this book?

Murderous Spirit is a second great commandment story: Love thy neighbor as thyself. During Tyrrell’s drunken-loser stage, he’s completely self-involved and self-destructive. When his wife calls him to become his better self, and he starts doing the will of his higher power, his life turns around. Or, to rephrase the second great commandment: You get it by giving it away. Once Tyrrell uses his training and experience to help people, he finds a large measure of peace.

You’re known primarily for writing thrillers. What are the elements of a good thriller?

One of my college professors pointed out that Shakespeare was successful because his work had the three key ingredients for entertainment: action, humor and sex. The balance of the three determines whether it’s a tragedy or a comedy, but successful entertainments have substantial portions of all three. If it was good enough for Shakespeare, it’s good enough for a thriller.

How would you describe your religious faith and how has it evolved over the years?

I was brought up by the nuns—lots of memorizing of the Baltimore Catechism. It was faith by the numbers. When I went to Fordham Prep in the Bronx, I encountered the Jesuits and was encouraged to ask any and all questions about God, about the Bible, my personal morality. Eventually, I drifted from Catholicism for a long time. I always believed there was a God and that I had a relationship with Him, but I didn’t take it any farther than that.

Then my wife and I were lucky enough to have our son, and, as parenthood so often does, that changed everything and set me on a new part of my faith journey. I’ve been teaching at my parish for 15 years—I just finished working with a group of 13 year olds who were confirmed. I tell them what I learned from the Jesuits in high school: Your faith journey is a long adventure with moments of sadness and fear, but, hopefully, many more moments of laughter, love and joy.  

Who are some people, living or dead, who have inspired your faith and works?

I love Charles Dickens. Most of his books, not just A Christmas Carol, have a second great commandment sensibility. Dickens was outraged at the way Britain treated its poor. C.S. Lewis, who opened my eyes to the joy of being a Christian. And, in my opinion, The Screwtape Letters is brilliantly insightful and incredibly funny. James Martin, S.J., especially The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything, which literally changed the way I pray on a daily basis.

What roles do faith and spirituality play in this new book, if any?

Faith and spirituality are crucial to the story. Not that the reader has to have absolute faith, as plenty of saints have recorded moments of doubt, but the reader has to be willing to engage with a protagonist who may well be answering a call from God, who is asking all kinds of questions that people ask when they open themselves to faith and its possibilities.

In what way are you or are you not a Catholic novelist?

I don’t think I’m a Catholic writer the way Flannery O’Connor was. (Not to mention no one in his or her right mind will ever discuss my work and O’Connor’s in the same sentence.) I was deliberate about not presenting a specifically Christian spirituality. But, because I was formed in the Judeo-Christian tradition, the spirituality of the book reflects the ideas and morality of Judeo-Christian teachings.

What do you want people to take away from your writings?

Real joy is the result of living what Jesus called the second great commandment: Love thy neighbor as thyself.

What’s your favorite Scripture passage and why?

I love the story of Peter walking on water when Jesus calls him to come across the water (Mt 14:22-33). Peter is my favorite saint: The poor guy bumbles and stumbles his way through the Gospels. He’s confused and/or he overreacts. But he reminds me of me—my faith journey has been a stumbling one. But, like Peter, I finally committed to a relationship with God.

What I like about this story is it encapsulates Peter’s faith journey: Like all the men in the fishing boat, Peter is stunned at the sight of Jesus walking on water; he’s not really sure what he’s seeing. So the first part of Peter’s mini faith journey is fear and confusion. Once Jesus identifies himself, Peter asks Jesus to call so that Peter can walk to him. This part of the faith journey is about believing and praying.

Jesus does call, and Peter walks on the water. This demonstrates faith. A ton of faith—imagine stepping out of the boat onto water! But the wind blows, and fear pushes into Peter’s heart. I understand that: The wind (my life) threatens, and I’m frightened. Peter calls for help, Jesus gives it immediately, and Peter is saved. Here’s the happy ending to this mini faith journey: Even though he’s scared out of his wits, Peter calls to Jesus and is saved. God loves us. He will take care of us. What’s not to love about that story?

What are your hopes for the future?

Well, I’d really love to see the Jack Tyrrell books on the bestseller lists, which will probably be the result of this article. But more important, I would hope that the Tyrrell series entertains readers—and gently nudges people toward God.

Sean Salai, S.J., is a contributing writer at America.

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