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Bill Schutt and J.R. Finch’s ‘Hell’s Gate’ knows what a hero is made of

Indiana Jones doesn’t have the monopoly on World War II-era cliffhanger thrills.

Allow us to introduce you to Capt. R.J. MacCready of Hell’s Gate, the first in a series of adventure novels written by Bill Schutt and J.R. Finch.

MacCready is a wisecracking scientist and adventurer who travels into the Brazilian jungle in January 1944. He’s on a perilous solo mission that an entire team of tough Army Rangers couldn’t survive.

He’ll cross paths with nasty Nazis (who are developing a biological weapon and its rocket delivery system), a sadistic Japanese physician (Asia’s answer to Auschwitz’s Dr. Mengele), a bloodthirsty tribe of Xavante Indians and an even thirstier species of giant, super-intelligent vampire bats.

MacCready’s specific area of scientific expertise is zoology (same as one of the authors, Schutt, who wrote a nonfiction book called Dark Banquet about “the curious lives of blood-feeding creatures”).

So it should come as no surprise that, even though our hero tangles with some very bad men, the colony of Desmodus draculae predators, which have 10-foot wingspans and were long believed to be extinct, is the baddest of them all.

Capt. R.J. MacCready’s specific area of scientific expertise is zoology — same as co-author Bill Schutt, who wrote a nonfiction book called Dark Banquet about “the curious lives of blood-feeding creatures.”

When we meet MacCready, he is fresh off a Solomon Islands search-and-rescue mission for a “rich Massachusetts kid” (could that kid have been none other than PT boat commander John F. Kennedy?).

Now he has been called in because a Japanese sub, one the length of a football field, is discovered abandoned 750 miles inland in the South American tropics. Maj. Patrick Hendry, MacCready’s superior, believes the sub brought German troops and scientists and their equipment to a place known as Hell’s Gate.

Perpetually shrouded in mist in a hard-to-reach canyon beneath 2,000-foot cliffs, Hell’s Gate is the perfect location for the Germans to hide their top-secret experiments from Allied reconnaissance.

So our man parachutes into the jungle (like Dr. Jones, he’s not strictly the academic type). He has no way of knowing what awaits, but the nefarious plot that he uncovers turns out to be a doozy.

It seems that Dr. Eugen Sanger, a colleague of Wernher von Braun, is honing his design for a suborbital space plane that can deliver bombs and chemical weapons. If perfected, this craft could be a game-changer for the Nazis — especially if it carries the mysterious yellow substance that Sanger’s colleagues have concocted, a poison that instantly reduces an entire army into bloody puddles of goo.

Through it all, MacCready displays a knack for getting into sticky situations and then cheating death at every turn. Usually he survives thanks to his resourcefulness and stubborn tenacity, but sometimes he’s just lucky.

That said, these human villains are all lightweights compared to the animal predators that roam the Brazilian interior. Among them are monstrous turtles whose bites can sever men’s limbs and snap their spines. There also are the tiny candiru, or vampire catfish, more feared in this region than piranha. One of these vicious critters attacks an unsuspecting German soldier by eating its way up the urethra!

Worse still are the giant vampire bats of Hell’s Gate. These sanguivores have a way of syncing mentally with their prey, convincing their victims to relax, think happy thoughts, be at peace (in other words, drop their guard), so the bats can strike without any resistance.

Then they sink their teeth in deep, releasing a clot-busting substance into the victim’s system, allowing them to drink, drink, drink — while their prey suffers excruciating pain until bleeding out.

There are no good ways to die, but this is a particularly ugly one.

Through it all, like the swashbuckler archeologist played by Harrison Ford in the “Indiana Jones” movies, MacCready displays a knack for getting into sticky situations and then cheating death at every turn.

Usually he survives thanks to his resourcefulness and stubborn tenacity, but sometimes he’s just lucky.

It’s good for a smile every time Col. Wolff, an evil-to-the-bone Nazi commander who has a mile-wide grudge against our hero, shows his exasperation. “Youuu … I knew you weren’t deaddd!”

It’s not much of a spoiler to reveal that Wolff will get his in the end, by the way. As for the specifics of how poetic justice is meted out, we’ll say only that it’ll make your skin crawl, but in a satisfying way.

The authors are working on a sequel to Hell’s Gate.

It’ll be interesting to see what fresh hell awaits.

Hell’s Gate

(out of five)

  • By Bill Schutt and J.R. Finch
  • William Morrow, $26.99
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