Hell's Gate
A novel by Bill Schutt and J.R. Finch
Book review by Jules Brenner
Wm Morrow, released 6/7/16, 384 pp., $26.99
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The remarkable thing about this period adventure thriller is the authors' scientific backgrounds and historical knowledge (Schutt is a vertebrate zoologist and professor of Biology; Finch is a history buff and cave explorer), which allows them to combine fact and the fantastic for a debut novel of engaging originality. No small part of that is the opening, with the U.S Army's discovery of a 300-foot Japanese submarine run aground in the mud of a Brazilian forest. While the details and settings of this are fictional, the model for it is the I-400 sub, built by the Nazis as an underwater fortress.

It's 1944, when World War Two is raging in Europe and Japan and Hitler's scientists are trying to develop new and devestating weapons of which several have reached testing stages. (It's the time and place of famed Wernher von Braun and his rocket technology, though he remains a background reference character).

After a team of Army Rangers go missing in the forest wilderness near the infamous Portao do Inferno (Devil's Gate), the army decides to send in a specialist -- an expert with the range of skills and ingenuity to chance a foray into the unknown and possibly deadly site of their last contact. This would be U.S. Army Captain R.J. MacCready.

Proving the versatility of his training, Mac parachutes into the target coordinates of the vast jungle and, bound in by fog, goes looking for an old friend and fellow scientist who had been presumed dead. But Mac has always thought botanist Bob Thorne had merely retired and could be located here, in a botanical heaven. Mac finds him living with Yanni, a woman who has her own, inexplicable, set of skills.

Mac makes his way through a foggy gloom to discover a mysterious 2,000 foot plateau and the hiding place for a corps of Nazi soldiers, engineers and a mad Japanese genius bent on getting his new biological war machines finished in order to save the invasion of Russia and destroy the United States and its allies.

But this activity is only one of the biological threats Mac must head off in this jungle. There's something else going on and it's a deadly danger to all human beings - Mac, village people and soldiers alike -- even Rangers and Germans.

Which puts a strain on the credibility of the tale and the Rangers' cause of death, while injecting it with an eerily foreboding suspense factor. But this doesn't come off as pulp fiction thanks to the scientific and historical elements the writers balance with solid drama in a well written and informative piece of thriller-adventure.

An epilogue is an overdone attempt to resolve loose ends but Schutt's "Reality Check," in which he explains all the fact-vs-fiction issues in the writing and construction of the book is illuminating and invaluable and adds to the fun.

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