Michael Gruber’s The Return is the literary equivalent of a Sergio Leone western. A larger than life protagonist, well-defined and interesting characters and a landscape that really comes to life.
Gruber manages to flesh out a large number of characters while still leaving them with enough mystery that you don’t entirely figure them out until the end of the book, if then. Richard Marder is a fascinating character and protagonist. A gun-owning New York book editor who is former Air Force who served in Viet Nam along with a tough as nails Marine(Skelly).
Once Marder is diagnosed with a terminal condition (no spoiler here, it’s revealed on the first page), he decides to head to the birthplace of his now-deceased wife and take care of some unfinished business. Along the way his former Marine buddy decides to join him and, unexpectedly, his daugher. The motives of all of these characters, as well as the criminals, drug lords, government and army personnel and natives at their destination in Mexico are murky and difficult to fathom. This is part of the genius of this book. There is plenty of action, and a lot of maneuvering and preparing for the larger conflict, but you are constantly wary of everyone’s motives and trying to figure out who is the manipulator and who is the manipulated.
Richard Marder is magnetic personality and knowing that he is going to die is liberating and makes him plausibly fearless. Episodes from Marder and Skelly’s time in Viet Nam are interspersed and add depth to the story as well as shine a light on their personalities and friendship. The conclusion of the book is both realistic and satisfying.
Michael Gruber is a talented writer and The Return is a cut above your ordinary thriller. Highly recommended.