July 13, 2017


R.J. MacCready #1: Hell’s Gate. By Bill Schutt and J.R. Finch. William Morrow. $9.99.

R.J. MacCready #2: The Himalayan Codex. By Bill Schutt and J.R. Finch. William Morrow. $26.99.

     Just to get the inevitable comparisons out of the way quickly: yes, the protagonist of these novels is indeed very much in the Indiana Jones mold, except that to the extent that any sort of home base matters here (which it doesn’t very much), it would be farther east than Indiana, more of a New York thing. The reason is that both Bill Schutt (real name and a real-life vertebrate zoologist) and J.R. Finch (a pseudonym reversing the initials of the novels’ protagonist) are New Yorkers. And unlike globe-hopping, heroic World War II era anthropologist Indiana Jones, globe-hopping, heroic World War II era R.J. MacCready is – well, a zoologist, of course.  And to get one other thing out of the way, the authors will surely not object if readers amuse themselves by mentally pronouncing the protagonist’s name as “make-ready,” since the authors themselves surely had that idea in their own minds when naming the character. Or should have had it.

     The manifest absurdities of the Indiana Jones stories were a great deal of the fun, but these MacCready novels only appear to be filled with manifest absurdities: Schutt and Finch base them on sound science. At the end of each book, they offer explanatory material about the research from which they extrapolate, and if they take an occasional liberty in the name of slam-bang action – for instance, bringing back an extinct species or two – that is perfectly justifiable in the service of a couple of doggone good and doggone thrilling stories.

     So much for the preliminaries. The main action – and there is plenty of it – takes place in areas quite far from New York (or Indiana, for that matter). Hell’s Gate happens to be a real place in South America, but Schutt and Finch give it a kind of Lost World eeriness in the context of a wartime mystery in their first book, originally published last year and now available in paperback. The story takes place in 1944, when MacCready is sent to the Amazon to find out why a Japanese submarine headed there and became grounded in mud. He is given the task only after a crack team of Rangers is sent to Brazil and disappears. It turns out that this is no ordinary sub: it is gigantic, with a hanger big enough to hold three bombers. Mac guesses that the sub was headed for Hell’s Gate (Portão do Inferno), a mysterious area where, in our real world, Percy Fawcett – whose treks inspired his friend Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World and whose personality inspired, yes, Indiana Jones – vanished mysteriously in 1925 while searching for the Lost City of Z. In Hell’s Gate, the huge sub has been abandoned by its Nazi crew, which turns out to be a serious mistake, as the soldiers are picked off one by one by creatures known to the natives as chupacabra. These monsters are both vampiric and strangely sentient, able to take over parts of their victims’ brains; and no, this is not as far-fetched as a brief description makes it seem. Mac picks up some help in his search, which is a bit of good luck, since he is not familiar with the jungle and it turns out to harbor, among other things, giant man-eating turtles. Mac’s helpers are a long-lost friend named Bob Thorne and Thorne’s wife, Yanni, and if they are less interesting than Mac, that is a minor matter, since everything here is less interesting than Mac, who is not only smart and bold but also funny and sarcastic; and yes, yes, that is yet another Indiana Jones tie-in. In any case, Mac, Thorne and Yanni soon enough uncover a particularly dastardly Nazi plot involving missile launchers that could bring Nazi victory on the Russian front and, not so incidentally, destroy entire U.S. cities. There is no Ark of the Covenant secreted here, but there are plenty of other things that strain credulity to an almost equal extent – except that Schutt and Finch are remarkably meticulous in basing the speculative elements on sound science. Hell’s Gate also features some remarkably well-done descriptive passages that make the settings come alive and help readers feel they are going along with the characters through exotic and almost always dangerous (although frequently beautiful) locales. A fantasy-adventure with some echoes of Heart of Darkness, of Stephen King, of Michael Crichton, and even of Dracula, the book is not especially distinctive in style except for its attentiveness to scene depiction. But the strength of Mac as a character, the pure evil of his opponents, the bizarre but fact-based situations and creatures he encounters, and a pace reminiscent of that of H. Rider Haggard (who, like Doyle, was a friend of Percy Fawcett) combine to make Hell’s Gate a genuine page-turner whose balancing of suspense and science is expertly done – and whose conclusion opens the way to a sequel that readers will be eager to explore.

     And that sequel is The Himalayan Codex. Now it is 1946, and postwar rebuilding is in full swing. Mac is still recovering from the Hell’s Gate adventure and the toll it took on him in multiple ways – Schutt and Finch provide enough backstory to make it possible to read this book without knowing the earlier one (although their hints are so tantalizing that anyone who enjoys the second book will certainly want the first). Now, postwar, Mac’s civilian life has him at the Metropolitan Museum of Natural History (a portmanteau museum: there really is a Metropolitan Museum of Art, and New York has a Museum of Natural History as well). Mac is presented with some unusual jawbones believed to be from a dwarf mammoth that appears to have had two trunks. The mammoth, it is thought, came from a remote part of a remote land, Tibet – from an area known to local residents as the Labyrinth. All of Tibet is now under imminent threat of Communist takeover, making any journey there extremely perilous. But there may be something else, something even more valuable than an unusual mammoth, in Tibet: evidence of remarkable assertions contained in a partial codex written by Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder, possibly describing an encounter with the Cerae, or Yeti. And the Yeti, if they exist, could hold the key to an entirely new understanding of human evolution, for they may have the ability to speed up the evolutionary process. Mac agrees to go to Tibet and find out just what is there – as much to help himself forget some of the horrors he encountered in the Amazon as to enlarge his and humanity’s knowledge. Schutt and Finch again pull in peril after peril here – for instance, there is some creature out there that even the Yeti seem to fear – and they also create an interesting juxtaposition of Pliny’s travels and Mac’s. For example, Pliny encounters the Cerae and naturally reaches for his sword – which, it turns out, he does not have. And that is a good thing, because the companion who does have it is quickly dispatched. Many centuries later, one of Mac’s co-explorers barely escapes instant death when his weapon is knocked out of his hand just in time by another member of the party. This sort of parallelism makes The Himalayan Codex into, in effect, two separate, intertwined adventures – and that makes for echoes not of The Lost World, as in the first book, but of Journey to the Center of the Earth, in which the modern-day (Victorian) explorers follow an earlier adventurer’s trail. (There is even a passing reference to Journey to the Center of the Earth here, although not in a parallel-adventures context.) As in Hell’s Gate, there are all sorts of elements in The Himalayan Codex that identifiably draw on earlier authors’ work; but, once again, Schutt and Finch use these elements in their own way and absorb them into a distinctive story (if, once more, not an especially distinctive writing style). There is a cinematic quality to The Himalayan Codex in the way the narrative cuts back and forth from Pliny’s time to Mac’s, and there is so much going on during the adventure that readers will find themselves visualizing scenes almost as if they were reading a screenplay rather than a novel – helped, once again, by some well-done descriptive passages that enhance the tale-telling without slowing it down. The novel has a number of supernatural or near-supernatural elements and a great deal of flat-out adventure, in some ways even more than Hell’s Gate possesses, and once more there is an extended note at the end that renders much of the apparent implausibility plausible. Although Mac has plenty of antecedents and Schutt and Finch tread territory already well-marked by earlier writers of thrilling adventures, Hell’s Gate and The Himalayan Codex nevertheless have a genuinely original feeling about them, thanks to their firm grounding in science and the authors’ regard for scenic accuracy and for motivations that, although sometimes stretched thin, never reach the breaking point. These are vivid novels, highly entertaining books whose apparently outlandish elements suggest that they are not to be taken seriously – except that they have a foundational basis in facts that makes the books more thoughtful, and more worrisome, than their fast pace and breezy surface style suggest on a first reading.

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